The seasons are something we all experience. They are an unavoidable part of being human. But the way winter affects our overall mood can have a worryingly negative impact upon mental health.
We begin the academic year with confidence and optimism. September passes, October greets us, and before we know it, November is here. Suddenly, things change. Donald Trump wins some election, the John Lewis advert just doesn’t quite make the cut this year, and our long-lost friend, “the sun,” attempts to make some last-minute cameos. This, readers, is followed by January, arguably the bleakest month of the year.
This month of darkness in our beloved town is something that can really make or break our mood as a student body. We find that the sun is suddenly setting a couple of hours after lunch and, for the most part, going outside is to be avoided due to the Arctic-like conditions of the East Neuk of Fife in winter.
What I hate most about this time of year, a time when we somehow all have lots of work to do, even though we have only just gotten back, is the fact that it seems like our days are
Historically, when time was not as concrete a notion, people would wake with the sun and go to bed with it. Today, we are forced to power through the darkness and try our best to be productive even as our surroundings tell our body that we really should be in bed.
The dark makes us feel inherently lethargic, and this can only contribute to stress levels in a university environment that demands a lot from our waking hours. To cope with the harsh reality of post-winter break, students consume chocolate bars and find ourselves returning to the pattern of late nights in the library, which is, coincidentally, the only place where the light seems to never go out. So, here we find ourselves in January, slightly heavier and slightly less certain of our degree path.
There is, however, a more serious note to this jokingly shared state of wintry “depression.” I am sure that many of us have found ourselves on the NHS Choices page for Seasonal Affective Disorder, asking ourselves, “Is this me?”
SAD is a heightened form of all of the above and replicates symptoms similar to that of depression.
One of these symptoms is difficulty or near inability to perform tasks such as studying, as concentration is made more difficult when the weather and season affect a person to this extent.
Interestingly, another symptom is overeating. This is something we do to comfort ourselves, similar to when people talk about “feeding a cold.” The staff in the Advice and Support Centre
offered advice to counteract SAD.
ASC staff member Penny Turnbull said, “Scotland’s winters can take some getting used to, and Student Services is committed to helping students recognise and respond to the triggers that can affect mood and feelings of wellbeing, which can include weather and light levels.
“This semester’s Student Services’ Wellbeing Workshop programme included a session called ‘Mood Boost’ which identified different tools to enhance mood and reduce irritability and worry.
“Other sessions this semester have focused on strategies for good sleep and staying motivated, building confidence, and addressing the fear of failure.”
SAD is a very real phenomenon, and this is recognised by our support services.
The ASC team constantly reinforces the importance of the basics: getting outside and taking advantage of as much natural light as possible (exiting the building being compulsory when the sun is shining) is extremely important and can seriously contribute to a healthier mentality.
Something completely unknown to me, and I’m sure to many other students, is that the ASC has a collection of “SAD Lamps.”
These lamps alleviate symptoms of SAD by providing light therapy.
Ms Turnbull said, “Some users find [the lamps] very beneficial. […] These are loaned to students showing symptoms of SAD on a first-come, first-served basis.”
It is never easy to get out of bed when the lack of light tells you that it must surely be 3 am, and it is reassuring to know that the University recognises this time of year has the capacity to really bring us down. It is so important, then, that we try to make the most of these winter months.
St Andrews can be enchanting in the winter. Wintry walks, hot chocolate with friends, and home baking are all wonderful pastimes. As students in this town, it is easy to forget the importance of proper relaxation. By that, I do not mean another half hour nap between classes.
Organise an evening in with your friends; go for a long walk on a Sunday morning. Don’t let the long, dark periods make you forget that there is much optimism to be found around the streets of St Andrews.