For many of us, once the festive season has ended, the January Blues set in, and we start to feel low in mood, energy, and morale. The cold weather, dark mornings and going back to our everyday routines doesn’t help, but here’s what does!
Counsellor and therapist Lee Hawker-Lecesne has put together the following advice to help get you back on track.
The weeks after the celebrations of Christmas and the frivolity of New Year can often feel like an anti-climax. With time off work and get-togethers with family and friends out of the way for a while, it can feel like there are not a lot of events to look forward to. The signs and symptoms of January Blues can include:
- Sitting in your comfort zone
- Low mood and sadness
- Anxiety and feelings of depression
- Low libido
- Lack of motivation
The Comfort Zone
Everyone has a comfort zone, and we like being in it. That comfort zone may take many different forms: doing a job where we do what is required of us to get by, but not necessarily more than that; getting quick dopamine fixes throughout the day on our phones or other devices; spending weekends hanging out with the same people we have always socialized with; holding on to the same beliefs we have had for years and failing to consider different opinions.
Basically, being in our comfort zone means taking the path of least resistance. Life becomes a predictable routine, with no real challenges and we find ourselves stagnating – it is easy to understand why most people stay here for most of their lives. As the name implies, it is comfortable since we are not pushing ourselves. Whilst our comfort zone is indeed comfortable, it also has one big downside. People who are stuck here for too long do not just stagnate, they often regress backwards.
“Only those who consistently push past their comfort zones and embrace the struggle, can reach their true potential.”
When you are doing the same things, the same way, over and over, the comfort zone itself begins to shrink. The things that you were comfortable with last year, may become less comfortable this year. For example, someone who is socially anxious, and is afraid of social interaction, usually does not like the idea of meeting new people; experiencing that is outside their comfort zone. So instead, they prefer to spend their time alone, or if they do socialise it is with people they already know well. But what if this person starts spending less time with their current friends, and even more time alone. Slowly, their current comfort zone will become smaller – because they do not confront their fear, the fear becomes even bigger. Ultimately, even the idea of calling up their current friend group might become more difficult.
When a muscle is not used for a long period, it atrophies and gets smaller because there is no reason for it to stay big. The same happens when we do not challenge ourselves. We become less capable of handling the obstacles that life throws at us. This is the first reason why this January, you should try to do something difficult every day. None of us want to stagnate, and we do not want the things that we are comfortable with now, to become uncomfortable in the future.
There is a definite pay-off in trying to do add something new and challenging to our routine every single day.
Push Yourself into the Growth Zone
When we push ourselves to do something that is a little more difficult or challenging for us, we leave the comfort zone, and we enter the growth zone. This is where we struggle, but this is exactly where all real progress is made. To improve and see progress, you must leave the comfort zone and increase the challenge. That might mean increasing the weights on your lifts in the gym or reading something new and trying to recall that information without help.
Doing anything worthwhile requires you to go through the transition from comfort zone to growth zone, because the things that have the biggest payoff always feel difficult in the moment. There is no improvement without challenge – remember that as we head out of the Christmas period and into the New Year.
If you are not happy with where you are, there are a few ways to go from comfort to growth. You probably already have a certain area in mind where you are stuck and want to improve over the coming year. There are ways you can go about it – the first way is to do the thing you want to change more consistently, the second way is by doing it more intensely, and lastly, the third way is by doing it for longer periods of time. All of these approaches will increase the difficulty of whatever you want to improve on.
An important aspect of moving into the growth zone, is that the area in which you want to challenge yourself must have some sort of a long-term benefit. Studying something, for example, may leave you feeling somewhat stupid in the moment, but because you absorb new concepts you get smarter over time. Eating healthily and resisting sugar might be difficult now, but it is what allows you to get in, and stay in good physical condition in the coming weeks. Even though it might feel uncomfortable in the moment, we know that our behaviour will pay off in the future. Only by entering the growth zone and pushing yourself, are you able to reap those positive long-term benefits.
Positive change requires moving beyond your comfort zone, but it’s important to remember this doesn’t have to be done at once.
A far more effective method is to go about it gradually in small and manageable increments. Another benefit that comes from doing it gradually is that you create a positive feedback loop. Since you can do what you set out to do, you give yourself evidence that you can indeed improve and change – and this proof of progress, even if it is small, makes you feel good and more confident in your abilities. This in turn fuels persistence to push through more challenges further down the path. Basically, success starts to feed on itself, and you keep pushing yourself further out of the comfort zone. Also, when you get a positive feedback loop going in one area, it tends to slowly spread to other areas.
Whenever you can this January, do something outside your comfort zone. Even if you start by doing little things, this kick-starts the positive feedback loop, and just like falling dominos, success fuels further success.
Think about the comfort zone as a place of temporary refuge as you begin the New Year, but not a permanent residence.
Lee Hawker-Lecesne MBPsS, Addiction Counsellor and Lead Therapist at The Cabin comments: “Unfortunately, a lot of people give up at the first taste of failure or discomfort, and they never see what they are capable of. If you never push yourself to the limit, how can you know where your limit is?
“Only those who consistently push past their comfort zones and embrace the struggle, can reach their true potential. So, this January, do something that you find slightly more challenging. Read a few more pages, do a few extra reps at the gym, learn some new words. Start now, try to do something difficult today, and you will become better than yesterday”.
Exercising to feel better
Lifestyle modifications such as increased physical activity and fitness can be vital for individuals battling mental health issues to help improve their mental fitness. An essential component of lifestyle modification is exercise. This new year, look to improve your physical fitness through aerobic exercise such as jogging, swimming, cycling, walking and somatic movement (meditation and mindfulness).
Fitness improves mental health – exercise-induced increases in blood circulation to the brain influence the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and, thus, the physiologic reactivity to stress. This physiologic influence is mediated by the communication of the HPA axis with several regions of the brain, including the limbic system, which controls motivation and mood; the amygdala, which generates fear in response to stress; and the hippocampus, which plays an important part in memory formation as well as in mood and motivation. Health benefits of regular exercise include the following:
- improved sleep
- stress relief
- improvement in mood
- increased energy and stamina
- reduced tiredness that can increase mental alertness.
Eating well to stay mentally healthy
There is a wealth of knowledge about what nutrients the body and brain need for healthy functioning, and by comparing foods to see which contain these specific nutrients, we can understand which foods are likely to boost mood. Keep in mind that while certain foods may not individually change mood, as part of an overall dietary plan they can be effective in boosting your emotional state.
So which foods are likely to help boost your mood?
- Brazil nuts. A great natural source of the mineral selenium, which is needed for healthy brain functioning. Studies have shown that people with low selenium levels have more anxiety, depression, and irritability.
- Sardines or other oily fish. Oily fish contain an abundant source of Omega-3 fatty acids, which is thought to prevent depression.
- Oats. With a very low glycaemic index, oats release energy slowly into the bloodstream and help to create a stable mood. They also contain selenium.
- Bananas. Containing vitamins, A, B6, and C, potassium, phosphorous, iron, and the amino acid tryptophan, bananas are a nutrition-packed source of energy. Bananas also contain carbohydrates, which help in the absorption of tryptophan in the brain. Tryptophan is used to treat conditions including insomnia, anxiety, and depression.
- Lentils. Lentils are protein rich and also are a complex carbohydrate, so they provide a stable source of energy, creating a calmer mood.
- Chicken and turkey. Chicken and turkey have been found to increase intake of the amino acid tryptophan, which supports the body’s production of serotonin. Serotonin influences mood.
- Spinach. Spinach and other leafy green vegetables are an excellent source of B vitamins such as B3, B6, B12, and folate. These help to produce serotonin, which has been linked to healthy mood.
Cutting back on alcohol consumption
Even when alcohol is consumed in moderation, it wreaks havoc on our mind and body over time and over the holiday season many of us will have over indulged. Alcohol can contribute to stress, anxiety, and depression and now is a great time to look at your drinking habits and make positive changes. Did you know that even a temporary break from alcohol can significantly improve your brain function, clear up your skin and reduce your risk of multiple forms of cancer? Detoxing from alcohol even just for a period can drastically improve your life – and the results are instantaneous.
Winter may seem as though it will never end, so beat the winter blues by doing something special. After all, looking forward to something can really help us to stay motivated. Think about something that can turn a frown upside down – perhaps a day at the spa, a weekend vacation, or a special event. In fact, by planning something exciting, a person’s mood can completely reverse. It allows for anticipation and excitement up until the very day; afterwards it can provide happiness and relaxation for weeks or even months.
Lee Hawker-Lecesne MBPsS is a Registered Member of the British Psychological Society. He graduated from Anglia Ruskin University in the UK with a degree in Behavioural Science, and a postgraduate clinical focus on addictions from the University of Bath. Lee is Lead Therapist at The Cabin, a centre of excellence for the treatment of mental health and addictive disorder.
This article is not intended as a substitute for the medical advice of physicians. The reader should regularly consult a physician in matters relating to his/her health and particularly with respect to any symptoms that may require diagnosis or medical attention.