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The Dark Days: Students and Psychologists Reflect on Winter Blues

As the leaves pass into the November breeze, students start to step out from afternoon lectures into bitter wind and immersive darkness. For some, that signals the start of the winter blues.

With the clocks pushed forward an hour after the last Sunday in October, the already sparse Scottish sunlight has begun to dwindle further into darkness. Some students say that has cut into their mood, making it harder for them to socialise, get work done, and stay energised.

Science backs up that feeling. Darker days and colder winters bring on conditions that can bring down people’s overall wellbeing, said Dr Barbara Dritschel, a senior lecturer in the School of Psychology and Neuroscience.

To buck the bad moods that winter can bring, the professor recommended students stick to an active routine, reach out for help when they need it, and make an effort to find silver linings in the winter days.

“Notice the differences in your environment and embrace them”, Dritschel said.

Scottish winters have never been the high point of university life. At times, the afternoons turn to night by 16:00. Meanwhile, dark mornings make it hard to wake up for some to start their day.

“I think I have a really hard time staying motivated and often feel more tired”, said fourth-year Sophia Khan. “The mornings are the hardest. I think it’s hard when I wake up in the morning and it’s still dark.”

That gets in the way of a time of day when Khan said she is most productive. Recently, it has also brought her down at a time as she is already dealing with the burnout that the heavy workloads and mixed emotions that typify a final year at university can bring.

Khan is not alone in experiencing particularly low energy in the winter. That’s because the winter blues are a scientific phenomenon, Dritschel said. When darkness comes, it makes people feel sleepier and more lethargic. The lack of daylight increases the brain’s production of melatonin, a hormone that encourages sleep.

As peoples’ internal biological clocks are thrown off, it is key for students to stick to a routine, Dritschel said; that includes eating and going to sleep around the same time each day, a practice existing research indicates can promote a healthier lifestyle.

When the winter blues start to stick, Dritschel said students need to take note. It is natural to notice a slight change in mood as a result of having less daylight, she said. But for some individuals, the change in seasons can “trigger a period of depression, where they experience a lack of interest in regular activities, and sustained low mood for a period of two weeks,” she added.

This onset of seasonal depression is referred to as ‘seasonal affective disorder’. For those who experience the clinical condition, it can become hard to function.

Dritschel encourages students who are noticing a sustained low mood in the winter months to reach out for support. While a slight drop in mood is common in the winter, drawing the distinction between feeling low and seasonal affective disorder is key, she said.

Academic pursuits and general mood are not the only areas of life set back with limited daylight. The enthusiasm to socialise can dwindle with the sunlight, the professor said, leading to isolation and further worsened moods.

That feeling of isolation is something Khan said she has experienced. “If it’s a day like this, I don’t want to go to somebody else’s flat, I’d rather just stay in”, Khan said, nodding to her window as it was pelted by rain and gusts of wind. “I don’t see as many people.”

While feeling less inclined to socialise during winter months is common, Dritschel said that “social connection is key to well-being”. Abandoning your social life altogether may well do more harm than good for your own health, she added.

Social interaction does not have to be an enormous labour — it can be found in simple moments throughout the day, the psychologist added.

“You could be on the street and you see someone — and you just smile at them”, Dritschel said. ”That’s a great way of having a connection”.

Practising simple acts of kindness, both towards others and yourself, can also provide a sense of fulfilment and connection, Dritschel added.

On top of making students feel sleepier, Dritschel said the bad weather can cut into the “feel-good neurotransmitter” called serotonin, which carries messages to the brain that improve one’s mood. That problem is enhanced as people might become sleepier and less inclined to exercise, a pastime that can play a key role in serotonin production, she added.

Students should get outside and capitalise on any available daylight to keep their mood up, Dritschel said.

“If you can’t get outside, then try to bounce around or do some exercise”, she added. “That will be really helpful”.

Along with limited daylight, other factors may contribute to the bleakness of winter in St Andrews.

Khan noted that there is generally less to look forward to in months like November than during other times of the year. It can be a time when students think more about surviving to the holiday season more than thriving, she said.

Even while the winter may seem grim, Khan said that it gets easier as time passes. “I think every year I’ve been at St Andrew’s, it’s become easier to get through this time of year”, she said.

Learning a new skill such as cooking and taking the time to take breaks when they are needed can also help ease the lethargy of the slower months, Dritschel said.

And while the winter months often invoke some despair, Dritschel said students can embrace it as a time to rest and reconsider their priorities and lifestyle. “I think another thing that can be really good is to use this as a reset time”, she said.

While it is natural for your mood to dip in the dark winter months, changing how people approach the new season can make it more bearable, she added.

After all, the sunset in St Andrews is at its best against the backdrop of darkness.

“There is a benefit to beauty in winter”, Dritschel said.

Illustration: Lauren McAndrew

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