My top 5 tips to help you fight those winter blues.
By Liepa Petraviciute
As I write this blog, I’m sitting by my desk, wrapped in my favourite blanket with a cup of tea to uplift my spirit. I’m in my natural habitat, as my housemates would say. A classic Aberdeenshire day – raining and quite gloomy outside. I look at the clock and I sigh – it’s only 3pm and I already feel like calling it a day. All I wish is to nest deep into my bed sheets and hibernate until spring returns. However, first must finish writing this blog as I believe that what I will write here might help out a lot of struggling students, studying or about to study at the University of Aberdeen.
I want to talk about a problem that most of us suffer from, up North, faces, but don’t really deal with – the winter blues, or in some more extreme cases, SAD (Seasonal affective disorder). Our NHS defines Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) as a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern. This disorder is still not fully understood, but the main theory is that it is caused by the lack of sun exposure during the shorter autumn and winter days. The symptoms are usually a persistent low mood, a loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities, irritability, feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness, feeling lethargic (lacking in energy) and sleepy during the day, sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning, craving carbohydrates and gaining weight. Last year, I experienced it with a full blast, I couldn’t force myself to get up for morning lectures, I would barely go out of bed, never mind leaving the flat. I was in hibernation, and it did no good to my grades. I was miserable yet blamed myself for being lazy and not wanting to do anything. It got to the point, where I realised that I need to do something, or else my academic life will go to waste. In this blog, I’m going to give 5 tips that helped me to get through dark and cold periods of last year. Just to clarify, I’m not a nutritionist or a mental health professional, these tips worked for me, but it might not for you. But I hope this article will inspire you to look more into this topic and to put a little bit more effort to fight winter blues.
1. Taking Vitamin D supplements. Vitamin D is the only vitamin that we produce when exposed to sun light, but it’s almost impossible to get enough of it here in Aberdeen during dark autumn/winter seasons, therefore it is crucial to find an alternative source. The NHS official website recommends 10mcg of Vitamin D a day. You can either make sure you consume enough food products that are rich in vitamin D or you can start regularly taking vitamin D supplements. Consult your local pharmacist to find out which dose and type would suit you the best.
On the NHS official website, it is indicated that fatty fish, red meat, egg yolks and fortified foods, such as some cereals, porridge or fat spreads are a good source of vitamin D. Cow’s milk in UK is not fortified with vitamin D, therefore it is not a good source, despite what your mum or gran might tell you. For vegetarians and vegans, unfortunately, the only plant source of vitamin D are wild mushrooms, as commercially grown mushrooms are not exposed to UV inhibiting vitamin D production. As vitamin D is mostly found in animal produce, vegans and vegetarians should consider taking vitamin D supplements. On the bright side, many dairy alternatives are packed with vitamin D. For example, a glass of soy milk (200ml) contains 1.5 mcg of Vitamin D. Therefore, if you want to increase your vitamin D intake, starting your day with a bowl of cereals or oat porridge with soy milk, would be an ideal option.
Life hack – when you don’t have a lot of time to prepare healthy breakfast – buy instant oat porridge sachets and add dried/fresh fruit or nuts to the porridge. It doesn’t take a lot of time to prepare and a pretty bowl makes you feel like you have your life together.
My daily porridge with soy milk art
2. Using Light therapy
While researching how to reduce the symptoms of SAD, I found out about light therapy. The theory behind it is, that if you sit in front of a special light box that produces powerful light that mimics the sun for about 30 minutes a day, you’ll receive enough light exposure for the whole day. The great thing is, that the University of Aberdeen has one in Multi-Faith Chaplaincy centre. Don’t worry if you’re not a religious person, this centre does not require you to be religious to use its facilities.
I was really surprised at first how easy it was to book a therapy session as it seemed that few of my fellow students knew anything about this service.
I was a bit nervous before my first session there, but the staff were extremely helpful and nice, they provided complimentary cookies and hot beverages, which really warmed my broke student soul. During the 30 minutes session, you don’t have to sit in front of it and stare straight into it, you can simply relax, read a book, scroll your phone or even bring a friend along and share the light together while hanging out.
If you want to book a light therapy session, simply email firstname.lastname@example.org with the time slot you wish to book. If you want to find out more about counselling services that the University of Aberdeen provides, follow this link: https://www.abdn.ac.uk/infohub/support/counselling-service.php#panel1853
A “Light box” at the Multi-Faith chaplaincy centre
3. Spending quality time with friends:
As mentioned before, when you’re experiencing winter blues, it can be easy to fall back into the routine of bad and sometimes ridiculous excuses to avoid going out your home to hang out with your friends, but it is a big mistake that I’ve done and still sometimes do. While leaving the comfort of your bed might feel hard and painful now, but the moment you’re surrounded by your friends, your heart fills up with more comfort than a blanket can provide. If you don’t feel like leaving your home, at all, simply invite your friends over to just chill, you don’t have to be doing anything exciting to have a quality time with your friends. If you’re close with your friend, try talking about how the dark weather is affecting you, as your friend might be feeling the same. Then you can both try the light therapy that I mentioned before, together. Knowing that you’re not alone in this can help you tremendously.
4. Joining a society If you don’t have many close friends or you want to exercise more, I could not stress this hard enough – join a society or a sports club. It will not only look good on your cv but will also give you something fun to do during those dreadful days and allow you to meet awesome like-minded people that will likely become your friends or even a second family.
In the University of Aberdeen there are an overwhelming number of societies, it might be hard to choose only 1 or 2! This year I dedicated my Fresher’s week to finding a society that I could commit for the whole year or more (I definitely didn’t go there just because of all the freebies). Because there was an insane amount of societies to choose from, I went too all try out sessions that interested me, and, to my surprise, I ended up by joining the musical theatre society “Treading the boards”, which I had no clue about before going to the Fresher’s Fare. It is an incredibly fun society and you also get to dance (it counts as exercise, right?) and burn some calories while having fun.
So, I encourage you to go and find a society that suits you best. This way, you don’t have to force yourself to go to the gym to do your “daily exercise” to keep the winter blues away. I’m not going to lie, some evenings I find it extra hard to get out of my house to get to the rehearsals, but once I force myself out, I’m glad that I didn’t stay in.
5. Seeing a professional
But sometimes, when it really gets hard, all this self-help might be not enough to help you keep up with your daily life. If it gets severe, or if you feel like you might have SAD, you should definitely go see your GP, who will be able to diagnose you and prescribe a suitable treatment programme. Personally, I haven’t consulted my GP about this issue yet, because I’m one of those people who wait for the last minute, until it gets really severe, but you shouldn’t follow my example! Do seek out help, if you feel like you need it! You are worth it and it might actually make your life much easier.
In conclusion, while only 1 in 15 people in the UK according to Mental Health foundation are suffering from SAD, many of us experience decrease in mood during the dark periods, so using these tips just might help you start feeling a little more hopeful. As I’ve mentioned before, these are the tips that work best for me, but it might not suit you, so it is important to explore the options yourself. Experiencing winter blues can be tricky, because you have to force yourself to do things that are uncomfortable, but in the long run will help you and at the same time, you shouldn’t be too harsh on yourself for feeling down and sleepy. It is a battle, that comes every year, but it is easier, when you’re prepared and you know what to expect.
And here’s a picture of my bearded dragon Geronimo, trying to get as much sunlight as possible.