Christians are not immune to feeling overwhelmed during these short, dark January days. On Blue Monday, Dr Sharon Hastings offers her top tips for improving your mental wellbeing in 2024


Source: Photo by Karolina Grabowska:

Got the January blues? Beset by Januworry about Christmas overspending in a cost-of-living crisis?

With the sparkle of the Christmas lights gone, it’s no wonder that January 15 is known as ‘Blue Monday’, the most depressing day of the year. Add to that the noise of New Year’s resolutions, with pressure to change and temptation to compare, and it’s no surprise that many of us experience mental health struggles at this time of year.

Christians are not exempt from these pressures and challenges. Here are four ways you can improve your mental health in 2024:

1. Go gently!

I first encountered the greeting “Go gently” in a message from someone who had read my story of mental illness. I was struck by how compassionate and caring it was.

The Cambridge dictionary defines ‘gently’ as: “calmly, kindly, or softly – without force or strength – slightly or gradually”. The message of “go gently” is the antithesis of the messages we get from the world in January: Hit the gym! Get that promotion! Find your soulmate!

Emotional self-regulation is a practice of self-control, a fruit of the Holy Spirit

Theodore Roosevelt said: “Comparison is the thief of joy”. I have seen this in women with eating disorders who couldn’t get thin enough; in churches where single people feel incomplete without a partner; in myself when I was unemployed and my peers were progressing in their medical careers.

When you find you are in the comparison trap, go gently with yourself. The world shouts: “You are enough!” but it can feel a bit vacuous. If you are a Christian, you know that God truly has made you enough, exactly as you are. He knit you together, he has ordained all your days (Psalm 139:13,16). He loves you (John 16:27). Cultivate self-compassion and self-care based on these biblical truths.

2. Breathe

Pay attention for a moment to your breathing. Is your breath going deep into your abdomen, or are you breathing into the top of your chest?

When we are stressed, our shallow breathing sends a message to the brain that there may be a threat, adding to our experience of stress. To break this vicious cycle, we need to intentionally breathe deeply, activating the parasympathetic nervous system to soothe and calm us.

There are lots of evidence-based practices out there to help us but, sometimes, the simplest things work best. Try taking a few slow, deep breaths, making sure that your exhale is longer than your inhale.

In Christian contemplative breath prayers, we add to this practice, repeating words of prayer with the rhythm of the breath. For example:

Inhale: “Be still and know…” Exhale: “…that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

Inhale: “The Lord is my shepherd…” Exhale:… “I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1).

A common secular practice: “Breathe in peace, breathe out love” is so much more powerful when it becomes: “Breathe in God’s peace, breathe out his love.”

Our breath has power to heal. God gave us that breath.

3. Self-regulate

If you’re feeling anxious or blue, you may notice that it’s harder to regulate your emotions. You might find yourself shouting at your children or making a sharp comment to a colleague.

The key to regaining mastery of your emotions is gaining awareness of them. This is difficult in the heat of the moment and takes practice. So check in with your emotions a couple of times a day – when brushing your teeth or before your quiet times perhaps. Are you at an eight out of ten on the stress scale? Or are you calm but a bit depressed?

With practice, you will be able to check in at those flashpoints too, realising that you need to say a breath prayer before you speak, or stop for a cup of tea before sending that email.

Emotional self-regulation is essentially a practice of self-control, which is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). When you are self-aware and self-controlled, other fruits – patience, gentleness, love – will naturally flow.

4. Keep a gratitude journal

Visit any bookshop this January and you will find a multiplicity of gratitude journals on every shelf. Some have different prompts; others simply have three points to fill each day.

Gratitude journalling became popular after psychological research demonstrated that it really does improve mood. It’s a practice that could be seen as the ultimate anti-resolution – when we express gratitude for what we have in the here and now, we’re not striving for a better lifestyle in the year ahead.

Inhale: “Be still and know… Exhale: “…that I am God”

But what if you’re worried and blue, and don’t feel that you have much to be thankful for? Herein lies the beauty of gratitude journaling. We look for small things we can be thankful for - a sunrise or a cheeky sparrow in the garden - and we see these things as blessings from the God who understands our pain; tiny foretastes of the day when all pain will cease.

All you really need is a notebook, so why not get started?

Of course, if you have made resolutions, that’s OK! But go gently. Show yourself grace as God shows us his grace. If you find this difficult, try a breath prayer: Inhale: “Jesus, my gentle saviour…” Exhale: “…help me to be gentle”.