The winter months can be awful. In fact, they can be some of the worst months in the year, especially for a student. How many essays have you had due recently? I bet you have another MCQ coming up soon. We’re just over the halfway mark of the semester, and work just seems to be loading up and getting even more dense. Who’s looking forward to more online assessments? Okay, enough of that, I know you know – I don’t need to remind you.
Stepping away from the mounting academic stress and focusing on life in general, not much appears to be as cheery or happy as things were during the summer months. The evenings are shorter, the nights longer, the weather wetter. Not only this, we are attempting to power through a second lockdown, and although there are slightly more things to do than before – hello, Boole Library – the potential possibilities to pass time and to have fun are limited. This is tough, I will be the first to admit it. My mood seems to have plummeted in the last few weeks – not for any one specific reason, but it’s harder for me than ever to kick this sense of groggy gloominess that continuously seems to linger on my being.
Fortunately, this seasonal gloominess is something I’ve experienced before. After suffering through this inexplicable sadness for a few weeks in first year I came across an article by chance that explained to me a possible reason for my feeling dull. This article I came across exposed me to Season Affective Disorder for the first time. Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD according to the Mayo Clinic is “is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons — SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year. If you’re like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody.” Sound familiar?
The severity of SAD differs from person to person: certain people will feel nothing at all, but for others it can be intense and all-consuming. Low moods tend to persist, and eating habits can adversely change for no explainable reason. This, on top of mounting pressures from college can often lead to a very sombre experience. Dealing with all of this on top of a pandemic? Fair dues to you!
Yet, just know you are not alone in your struggles. In darker, wetter countries such as Ireland this phenomenon is more common than in sunnier countries. Cork can be awfully gloomy during winter – everything suddenly turns grey in the rain, and it always seems to be cloudy and combined with the wind it can sometimes be overwhelming.
Of course, as I am not a health professional my advice is only that – advice. If you feel you need professional help, look for it. You deserve it and you should not feel any reluctance in doing so.
It is good to know that for SAD there are habits and devices you can implement into your daily lifestyle to alleviate some of the more intense symptoms.
Ensuring you have plenty of sunlight is an important factor on the road to recovery. Personally, I try my best to be awake at an early hour – I’m aware this can be hard, but I personally feel it does make a big difference. Spending those extra few hours in the morning soaking sunlight out on your daily walk – even to the shop – can make a change. Sunlight gives you Vitamin D, and Vitamin D is an important factor needed in your daily lifestyle. A Vitamin D deficiency may contribute to low mood and can weaken brain health and general cognitive functioning. So get up and go out, maybe even treat yourself to one of those fresh croissants that always seem to sell out before 11:00am in some coffee shops.
Opening your blinds to ensure as much sunlight as possible filters into your room while you work and rest is another important factor. Although many days recently have been filled with endless rain, even that extra bit of light that filters in can make a difference, if only the slightest amount. A tip also given to me was to face the window while working at my desk. This involved a bit of awkward rotating, but if you can manage it I would advise it. A bonus I found was the shadows from my own hand that often irritated me while reading or writing at my desk have more or less gone with my new desk rotation, so that may also be another benefit.
As I’m sure everyone knows, exercise helps with your mental health. Try to incorporate it into you regular routine, and implementing the smallest amount extra into your lifestyle will surely be beneficial. Also, if you go running or cycling outside, you also get that extra bit of sunlight.
Diet, like exercise can work wonders for your mood. Of course treat yourself to the food you love when you want it, who doesn’t love looking forward to a nice takeaway or a big bar of chocolate after a hard day or studying? (It might be worth checking out some of Maeve O’Keeffe’s comfort food recipes over in the food section for some cooking inspiration). Still, it’s important to ensure you are nourishing your body too; try not to deprive it of essential minerals and vitamins and having an extra piece of fruit or veg here or there will do no harm. Also, processed foods can tend to make both your energy and your mood fluctuate, I think we’re all aware of that post-takeaway regret later in the night or early the next morning, and sugar crashes after a big sweet-binge can also make you feel awful – seven bowls of CocoPops later and watch me collapse in a heap onto my bed from sudden unexpected exhaustion.
Keeping your caffeine and alcohol consumption to a moderate amount is no harm either. Trust me, a hangover when you already feel low is the worst – I’m sure you probably know. Also that fourth cup of coffee before 2:00pm probably won’t benefit you, your anxiety might skyrocket and your leg might keep doing that weird twitch thing. Take it easy, leg.
A piece of advice I found the HSE gave to combat some of the effects of SAD was to “avoid stressful situations.” Oftentimes this can be hard, and stressful situations can often take place when we least expect them. Don’t worry, you know you can manage them. If you find you need that extra bit of help to prepare for dealing with a stressful situation Elizabeth Scott has written a very helpful article titled “How to Adapt to a Stressful Situation” for VeryWellMind. It might be worth looking at it. Taking steps to manage your stresses before they occur can be greatly helpful to your overall mood.
Light therapies are also something which have come to the fore in the study of Seasonal Affective Disorder in recent years. Light boxes which are available to buy online are bright boxes or panels that emit light. Benefits of light boxes include “a reduction in the production of melatonin – a hormone that makes you sleepy” and “an increase in the production of serotonin – a hormone that affects your mood”. Sound good? Likely yes, but be aware some side effects include headaches, eye-strain and even … tiredness.
Sun Lamps are another device used to combat SAD, something which mimics light emissions of the sun rising and setting during the summer months. You may find yourself waking in a dark world to a super bright light in your room, but it has the potential to benefit your life and even help you wake up earlier.
Still, as much as I hope the suggestions I have given you help, nothing I’ve suggested in this article may work perfectly for you. If this is the case, reach out for help. Look after yourself always, you are the most important thing to you. And you matter to so many people!
If you feel your mental health is taking an adverse toll on your life, or you feel affected by issues raised in this article, reach out to any of these services.
Student Counselling Crisis Text Line: Text UCC to 50808 to chat anonymously with a trained volunteer. Any issue. Any time.
Samaritans: Emotional support. 24 hours, Freephone 116123
Pieta House: Support for people at risk of self-harm: 24 hours, Freephone 1800 247 247
Aware: Support for people with depression or bipolar disorder. 10:00am-10:00pm Freephone 1800 804 848