Content Note: This article contains discussion of mental health.
It’s that horrible time of the year where we wake up as we go to sleep: in the dark. It’s a time consumed by demotivation and exhaustion, by the bitter cold and the dreary skies. Sometimes, I find it difficult to get out of bed in the winter, overwhelmed by an urge to stay curled up in the warm sheets. What’s the point of facing a day full of darkness?
In the UK, a winter day will get light at about 8 AM, only to get dark again before the day is anywhere near over (this is around 4:30 PM at the moment). It was a jarring thing to get back used to after having spent a week in Spain, where the sunset arrives an hour later (though that still felt ridiculously early).
This time last year – still in my first year at university, bogged down with the flu and bogged down with academic commitments – I struggled to keep my spirits up. A bit overwhelmed by the encroaching responsibility of adulthood and also just generally stressed out, I was vulnerable to the influence that darker skies and longer nights can have on the human mind.
In 2014, 1 in 3 adults in the UK suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – this is a form of depression that is experienced at particular times of the year, typically in winter due to the lack of sunlight leading to increased melatonin (the hormone that makes you sleepy) and reduced serotonin (a complex hormone that influences your mood, appetite, and sleep).
It’s a widespread phenomenon, and yet persists as taboo – which, unfortunately, still goes for all mental health conversations. However, I find it especially jarring that something so obvious – in a lot of people, extended periods of darkness leads to sadness, exhaustion and burn-out – is still taboo. The cause and effect is right in front of us – why aren’t we doing more to combat it?
Dealing with external darkness
Keep your living space bright
I try to chase away the darkness by keeping my room as light and bright as possible. I do this with side lights, fairy lights, and even glow-in-the-dark stars. I keep my curtains open for as long as is socially acceptable every day, and I’ve found that having white bed sheets can even help keep a room from feeling too shadowy.
Surround yourself with life
In my experience, having a plant to look after encourages me to look after myself. I made a deal with myself at the end of last year that, every time I water my plants, I should also wash my face or moisturise. But anything could work: have a big glass of water, use some hand cream, or just have a meditative moment to yourself. Plants are also really pretty and aesthetic, and stop a room looking so lifeless.
Unfortunately, over the winter break, one of my beautiful plants died. I refuse to give up on her that easily and I’m still trying to resurrect her. Please send your prayers.
It isn’t actually all darkness and dreary days
Some of my favourite days have been in winter – when the air is crisp, the skies are clear, and the sun is actually shining. Make the most of these days. When they come around, go for a walk, sit by a window, or even just stand outside for a while.
Dealing with internal darkness
Give yourself time away from your work commitments to just breathe and exist on your own. Last year, I discovered the incredibly niche hobby of completing dot-to-dots (preferably with lots of dots) – they now fill up my mindful moments. They’re the perfect combination of satisfying puzzle and relaxing (and beautiful) art. The same goes for ‘Sticker by Number’ books, mindful colouring books, and other relaxing art projects aimed at adults. Even just ordinary drawing works a charm! This is the perfect thing to do if you’re in need of a mindful break, and it doesn’t have to be art-related.
Other mindful options include: walking, sudokus (and other puzzles!), baking, building with Lego, running, writing, and so on. Whatever transports you away from your busy mind/world, at least for a little while.
To a nice coffee, to a new study location, to a take-away, to a day off (!!), to the nicer (but pricier) smoothie you always dream about.
Break up a boring/monotonous/same-y week with tiny rewards that still keep you productive and you don’t feel bad about i.e. don’t go wild and spend £100!
Go outside everyday
Even if it’s raining, even if I’m feeling down, even if my bed is cosy and warm, getting out of the house (whether to see people, to go to the library, to grab some food, or just to go for a walk) is a literal life-saver.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big champion for me-time. However, spending too much time alone can, funnily enough, get pretty lonely. Ideally, try and socialise with people you wouldn’t coincidentally see anyway (at work, in a lecture, etc.). I find a good way to combat this is to organise eating with people. Cooking with friends or going to the cafeteria together can break up a day really nicely. It’s also a good opportunity to check in with how friends are feeling, what’s happening in people’s lives, and feeling less like life is just an onwards trudge to your next work/academic commitment.
Note: Some of this content was originally published in Varsity, Cambridge’s independent student newspaper. Click here to read the original article.