Long nights and SAD days

Tips for getting through an Irish winter in the midst of lockdown

T/W depression

It’s March in Ireland, which means it’s cold and bleak outside. And as if Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) wasn’t bad enough, the prospect of being locked down until March 5 is surely enough to make you want to climb back into bed. No matter how well you had been adjusting to Zoom University, SAD’s seasonal pattern is almost impossible to avoid. After all, they don’t call it “Blue Monday” for no reason.

In a typical year, symptoms appear, or worsen, in the winter months and ease in the spring and summer seasons when the weather is a bit less cruel. Be that as it may, the opposite can also occur. It can also be triggered by multiple factors, whether that be prospective seasonal holidays, the general rotten weather of an Irish winter, or just the fact that the sun is out for a total of 30 minutes a day. Nevertheless, SAD is still not completely understood, so it’s easy to dismiss and even easier to make you feel confused and ashamed for falling victim to it. 

“Even in normal times, winter brings with it its own challenges, often making it a difficult, lonely and stressful time of year.”

To make matters worse, the idea of having no control over it can be extremely daunting for people who experience it. Factors causing depression, such as past trauma, health issues and family history, can also lead to SAD. More specifically, it is thought that reduced sunlight exposure affects the brain’s hormone production by producing too much of the sleep hormone, melatonin and too little of the happy one, which is serotonin. It also disrupts the circadian rhythm, also known as the body’s clock, affecting sleep and wakefulness. Even in normal times, winter brings with it its own challenges, often making it a difficult, lonely and stressful time of year. SAD is thought to be more prevalent in countries with greater changes in the daylight hours and weather, like Ireland. On the shortest day in Dublin this year, the sun rose at 8.40am and set at just 4.10pm. Of course, sometimes it doesn’t seem like the sun is there at all. 

SAD varies from person to person, but psychological symptoms can include a consistent low mood, tearfulness, poor self-esteem, feeling despair, guilt and helplessness, a loss of interest and motivation, a lack of enjoyment in things, irritability, avoiding social contact, thoughts of suicide or self-harm, along with other symptoms of depression. Physical symptoms include fatigue, difficulty sleeping or waking, sleeping more or less than usual, and changes in appetite and weight. SAD is no joking matter, but Ilana Wexler from Broad City does a fabulous job of depicting the depression associated with SAD in a lighthearted way while also offering ways in which you can combat the symptoms of SAD. 

“With little to no in-person teaching and limited opportunities to meet people, socialise or take part in extracurricular activities, academic performance suffers, and students’ entire well-being is negatively impacted.”

Moreover, the current lockdown measures have exacerbated the difficulties associated with SAD. At the best of times, student life in Dublin can be a difficult experience. Cold houses, long commutes in the rain, and arriving and leaving college in the dark exposes students to the extremes of winter in Ireland. The current circumstances have made everything more difficult, since students are unable to do many things that normally benefit their mental well-being. And, of course, lockdown is particularly challenging for students. Many are now stuck at home or in student accommodation, using a screen all day and seeing less daylight than before. Others may be forced to live and isolate with people they don’t know very well, without the option to go out to socialise with friends or meet new people. With little to no in-person teaching and limited opportunities to meet people, socialise or take part in extracurricular activities, academic performance suffers, and students’ entire well-being is negatively impacted. Not to mention that as young adults, we all feel as if we are being robbed of our beautiful years of youth. To put it simply, it’s all very bleak.

Recent research has investigated how the restrictions have impacted on student mental health. According to a UK study, the Student Covid Insights Survey (SCIS), 57% of students reported that their mental health had become worse over the course of the Autumn term. Compared to the general population, students reported lower levels of life satisfaction, life worthwhile and happiness, and higher levels of anxiety. The SCIS shows that while students followed the national guidance in the same way as the general public, they were more likely not to have left their home or accommodation in the seven days prior to being surveyed. Other research has shown that student loneliness affects confidence, achievement and mental health. And all of this is extremely hard, of course, because while we are trying to adhere to health guidelines in an effort to halt the rise of Covid-19 cases in Ireland, we are slowly but surely losing the plot. 

Be that as it may, we as students are tenacious. With all the chaos of the pandemic and the limited resources we now have access to at college, we still manage to get by and move forward. And even if some of us aren’t doing particularly well, we are still waking up every day and managing, and there is quite a lot to be said of that. 

It is important to note that anyone can experience symptoms of SAD, but international students who have moved to Ireland may be especially vulnerable. Students from overseas can struggle to understand why they feel so unhappy when they enjoy their course, have great friends and are not particularly homesick. As well as the environment, other changes that accompany moving to college can impact mental health, such as changes in diet, medication, routine and stress levels. It is no coincidence that Movember occurs when it does. Mental health on a broad scale appears to worsen as it gets colder and darker, so it is important to reach out to friends and family if you or someone you know seems to be struggling this year. 

While not everyone experiences SAD, everyone has mental health that fluctuates and needs constant care. Whether or not someone is diagnosed with SAD, here are ten recommendations that may help alleviate the winter blues that aren’t just “smile more”:*

  1. Go outside daily.
    Get as much natural light as possible. Try a brisk walk in the morning, on your lunch break, or between lectures. If you can, walk around a nearby park instead of the roadside. If you have a friend in your 5k limit, that’s even better. A great piece of advice I received recently was to go for a walk every day without the use of headphones. Ideally, you shouldn’t be listening to anything while on your daily walk. Simply listening to the sounds of your neighborhood is a great way to ground yourself and relieve anxiety.
  2. Get warm.
    At the risk of sounding like a mother, wear warm clothes. Bring a change if you’re going to get wet on your commute. Blankets and a hot water bottle at bedtime are a life-changer. Consider picking up a €20 oil-filled radiator from Aldi – it will heat a room in no time. If you need to, have your hot water bottle at all momentseven if this doesn’t prove helpful, it is nicer to be cosy and warm than cold.
  3. Aim for regular sleep.
    Stress, anxiety or depression can cause insomnia, but in a vicious cycle, poor sleep can make things worse. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day, even if it’s tough getting up earlier at first. You can set up your phone to remind you to get ready for bed. Relax for some time before trying to sleep; maybe read a book, and avoid using screens late at night. Limit your caffeine consumption, especially later in the afternoon. 
  4. Study by a window.
    A few weeks ago, I realised that I was spending most of my day at my desk with my back to the window, meaning I missed most of the daylight. I decided to rearrange my furniture to place the desk by the window, and it seems to have improved my essay-writing spirits, if not my essay-writing skills, and my strained eyes. In the library, sitting under a skylight or by a big window can make all the difference to your mood. 
  5. Light therapy or “phototherapy”/SAD lamps
    Some people have found that using a light box for phototherapy has significantly helped with seasonal depression, lethargy and insomnia, when used correctly. This is because light boxes simulate sunlight and can help to correct that circadian rhythm. Light boxes come in a variety of forms, such as desk lamps or wall fixtures. I have a sunrise alarm clock, which gradually wakes me as it lights up my room. Though I’m not sure if the science backs it up, you have full permission to light a candle or put fairy-lights up. Think of Ilana Wexler from Broad City gluing herself to her SAD lamp. It may be a fleeting happiness, but it’s happiness nonetheless.
  6. Fuel and move your body.
    It’s important to keep a healthy diet to care for your physical and mental well-being. A healthcare provider may recommend a supplement if you are deficient in certain vitamins or minerals. Also, find an exercise that you love, and force a housemate to join you on your endorphin hit, whether that’s yoga or sea-swimming or boxing. I’ve been enjoying running when the weather permits, or, rather clumsily, following pilates workouts on YouTube. Make sure the exercise you do is something you enjoy. Take up a new hobby if it means getting yourself outside more than usual.
  7. Rest well.
    Incorporate rest into your daily routine, and try to set aside a day each week when you don’t work. Our bodies are designed to need rest; it’s not that you can only take time off when you have sufficiently earned it. Instead of mindlessly scrolling through social media, do something that you find refreshing: paint, make music, bake, hike, read, knit, watch a movie with housemates or play with friends on Zoom. 
  8. Practise self care.
    It’s important to get to know yourself better, so that you are aware when your mental health dips and what can help. For you, self care might mean painting your nails, taking a bath, tidying your room, getting a coffee, tending your plants, practising mindfulness, praying or keeping a journal. 
  9. Talk to a friend or family member.
    Be honest about how you’re feeling, and give them permission to check up on your mental health. 
  10. Get support.
    There are so many excellent supports available for students. As well as the college health and counselling services, you can talk to your college tutor, the SU Welfare officer, one of the chaplains, an S2S peer mentor, or someone on Niteline, the student-run helpline. Samaritans also offers a free and confidential mental health service 24 hours a day, via phone-call or email. There are more supports here https://www.tcdsu.org/mental-health-supports 

“It’s important to try to find the light in whatever is good, help each other, and look forward to the darkness lifting.”

Irish winters are long and hard, especially so this year. It’s important to try to find the light in whatever is good, help each other, and look forward to the darkness lifting. When times are tough we must try to remind ourselves that, in the words of Andrew Peterson: “All this darkness is a small and passing thing.” Also in the words of the great Seamus Heaney: “If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere.” 

*These recommendations are in no way intended to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. 

If you think you might have SAD, or depression, don’t hesitate to seek help. It’s not your fault, and it’s not something to fix on your own. Visit your GP, who can assess your mental health and discuss options for treatment. This might involve cognitive behavioural therapy, psychotherapy, or antidepressants. To make an appointment with a college doctor, visit https://www.tcd.ie/collegehealth/service/student-clinics.php/. Alternatively, seek counselling. TCD’s counselling service is free to all students and is continuing to operate throughout the pandemic. For more information or to book an initial consultation, email [email protected].

Sarah Emerson

Sarah Emerson is currently a Deputy News Editor of Trinity News. She is a Senior Sophister English Literature and Jewish and Islamic Civilizations Student.