Words by Charlotte O’Riordan
As the days get shorter and the nights colder, many of us will be cosying up, watching festive movies and laughing over hot chocolates and marshmallows. But this isn’t a time of joy for everyone, for some it is a long hard struggle for peoples’ mental health. NHS Inform reports that Seasonal Affective Disorder “affects around 2 million people in the UK and more than 12 million people across northern Europe,” it also remains largely undiagnosed. Even without the basis for a diagnosis many more also struggle with mood, motivation and socialising more during the winter months. Symptoms of SAD include low mood, irritability, and concentration issues to name only a few but can be as extreme as people having thoughts of suicide, if you are struggling with any of these feelings it is important that you reach out for help either through the university or NHS.
Current understanding towards the cause of this disorder is unclear and there is still a lot of ongoing research including how lack of sunlight impacts melatonin and serotonin production along with the impact of the darker months on circadian rhythms.
The NHS, NHS Inform and Mind all list ways in which you may be able to help yourself through the winter, a key one being regular exercise. And no that doesn’t mean you have to suddenly spend your student loan on a gym membership or run a marathon (although it is absolutely fine if you wish to), luckily for Sussex students there are a whole range of accessible activities at your disposal. Active US offers low cost sports sessions throughout the week, and societies such as Sussex Yoga Society offer a range of classes for those who want to mix exercise with mindfulness. Charlotte Wood, welfare officer at Sussex Yoga Society, notes that “For me yoga has drastically changed my life. Taking the time each day to focus inwards, to stretch and breathe invites a freshness to my daily life. This especially helps in the darker, winter months to brighten up my day”. Participating in sports for just a few hours every week can give you a healthy endorphin boost and aid your mood year round but especially if you’re feeling low over the winter.
Secondly is to go outside, the benefits of getting out in nature is a hot topic in holistic wellness at the moment, inspired in part from indigenous peoples who have been aware of the healing properties of the earth for centuries. One of the easiest ways to absorb the benefits of nature during the winter months is to take a walk through a calm, green environment and the university backing onto the South Downs National Park gives you the perfect opportunity to do this; if you take a trip up the hill behind the Northfield student accommodation you can see great views over the Downs, befriend the cows who live in the fields and walk down into Stanmer Park. In addition to this watching the sunrise on the beach or taking a stroll through Stanmer Park at sunset aids with your circadian rhythm which massively helps with sleep, mood and motivation, all things that us students are in need of when it comes to the winter assessment period.
To gain a more hands-on approach with nature you can take a trip to the Roots garden, Roots meets every Wednesday and Sunday evening from 1-3pm and are located on the fields above Northfield. Participating in gardening at Roots allows you to grow food and get your hands dirty, a great activity for someone looking to ground themselves whilst also needing an activity to keep them occupied. There’s also a community aspect to the garden that allows you to feel a part of a group as well.
Eating well can massively aid in mood year round so maintaining a balanced diet is key if you want to keep healthy both mentally and physically this winter. This may seem like a silly piece of advice but it is often overlooked, it is of gross importance that you maintain a balanced diet and meet your 5-a-day – only 27% of adults actually meet this (British Dietetic Association). Additionally, with around 90% of serotonin produced in your gut (Healthline), having a well balanced diet and good gut health is essential to mood regulation. A good place to start with this is to base meals in accordance with the government’s Eatwell guide, this means focusing meals around carbohydrates and vegetables ensuring you get enough energy and vitamins to keep you healthy – especially important during the winter cold and flu period.
A final key tip to keep you mentally well over the winter period is to talk. Opening up can be hard but it is so important: talking to friends, family and professionals are all options you should consider if you are struggling during this time. You don’t even have to start by talking about your mental health, just remaining social with friends and family can help – say yes to the pint at the pub or coffee date even if you just go for a little while. But if you do want to start a conversation around your mental health don’t feel afraid or ashamed, everyone has their struggles, it is normal and it is human. If you feel you want more professional help then make an appointment with your GP, they can refer you for talking therapies such as CBT which can aid in altering your mindset and offer coping skills to utilise during these months.
It is so important to take care of your mental health year round but especially so in the winter months. Through using the advice laid out in this article I sincerely hope that you are able to both create a healthier mindset and reach out for any external help you may need. Mental health is not something to be ashamed of, we all have it and at certain points we all struggle, what is important is that we talk and implement healthy lifestyle choices to help with it.
If you require any further help with your mental health please contact your GP who can refer you to the right services or sign up for therapeutic services that the university offers (information on this can be found on the university website).
Featured Image Courtesy of Charlotte O’Riordan