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  • Writer's pictureAlasdair Bruce

Withstanding the winter

Updated: Jul 15, 2022

Winter weather can have real effects on the way we feel.

Winter in Edinburgh is reaching its pinnacle and exams are fast approaching. Edinburgh’s weather is hardly lauded as the reason for the city’s flourishing tourism on the best of days. I don’t think that even a member of the Svalbardian population would turn to Edinburgh for a tropical escape. For a student, these can often be difficult times. A pleasant walk into University becomes a rarity, as the horizontal rain pervades the streets and the winds render any prospects of staying dry under the flimsy embrace of an umbrella impossible. The days are getting shorter and the seven hours of daylight we get seem to think it unnecessary for the sun to make an appearance.

The “winter blues” many of us experience at times like this are not unusual. Changing seasons and the weather can have a great impact on how we feel, and sometimes this sadness might be more deep-seated than we think. Seasonal affective disorder, aptly shortened to ‘SAD’, is a form of seasonal depression most commonly attributed to less exposure to direct sunlight during the winter months.

According to the NHS website, a leading theory stipulates that a shortage of exposure to sunlight can cause a part of the brain – the hypothalamus – to stop functioning properly. This has the potential to increase the production of melatonin and reduce the production of serotonin. These hormones affect one’s sleep, mood and appetite, and the irregular production of them has been linked to depression.

It is undoubtable that the conditions in Edinburgh during the winter months might lead to this “winter depression”, which is potentially compounded by the added stress that a lot of students might experience during the exam period. This begs the question of what we can do to combat these difficulties.

The NHS website and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) provides some recommendations on how to treat SAD. The advice given by NICE is that SAD should be treated like other forms of depression, recommending cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and antidepressant medication. But those who do not opt for such treatments, there is a variety of easy self-help alternatives. One should look to increasing exposure to direct natural sunlight, take regular exercise, maintain a healthy diet, and make one’s work and home environments as airy as possible. Talking about these difficulties can also help to alleviate the burden of sadness during these times. Although we can change the way that we live to better how we feel, this might not always be sufficient in the daily, sometimes stressful, routine of students. It seems reasonable, then, to turn to the university to provide mechanisms of support to students who are experiencing winter depression.

The University of Toronto has taken matters into its own hands and introduced light therapy lamps to its main library. SAD lamps have been designed to help overcome the “winter blues” by increasing exposure to light that mimics that of direct sunlight in the seasons of summer and spring. Daily exposure to SAD lamps for 20-30 minutes per day is believed to be an effective treatment. The university could further help by creating greater awareness for SAD and providing easy access to CBT and other talking therapies. There is no expectation on the university to change the weather and it certainly doesn’t beckon the removal of the library windows so we can bask in occasional sunlight, but more can be done and there is perhaps something to be learnt from the experiences of others in treating SAD.


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