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Breaking the Ice on Seasonal Depression

January creeps in, bringing a chilly breeze that hints at the grasp of winter. The temperature steadily drops, barren trees shiver, and the landscape transforms with misery as leaves surrender to muted tones of grey and frosty whites. The iconic Oxford puffer remains a seasonal staple, sunglasses and sandals hibernate as darkness encroaches after 4pm lectures, courtesy of our faithful companion – daylight savings. Though the days may be getting longer, winter has arrived without warning, disrupting the warm, sun-soaked optimism of summer. 

Despite endeavours to romanticise the grey January skies with caramel-waffle oat lattes and charming cat-eared crochet hats, the reality often falls short as damp jeans cling to your legs in the drizzle, and sunlight becomes a rarity. The dream of idyllic scenes in cafes on rainy days, adorned with fairy lights and hot chocolate, seems just that. A dream. While the allure of becoming an academic weapon in the Radcam is tempting, the thought of battling through lethargy and lugging a heavy blanket to every study spot is too daunting. Venturing beyond the comfort of your room simply does not feel worth the energy, especially when confronted with near-freezing temperatures.

In this environment, it’s hardly surprising that motivation dwindles, leading to a reluctance to go outside. The struggle is felt by many, reflected in the statistics – approximately 2 million people in the UK experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) during winter. The challenge lies not only in the miserable weather itself but in maintaining a sense of well-being amid the doom and gloom.

Could you be dealing with SAD?

Seasonal Affective Disorder, cleverly abbreviated as SAD, is a type of depression with symptoms often present in seasonal cycles. The NHS website lists some of the following symptoms related to SAD: a persistent low mood, a loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities, feelings of despair, guilt, and worthlessness, lethargy and difficulties sleeping, and unexplained weight gains. While not an exhaustive list, people with SAD will often experience a combination of these symptoms over the winter months. 

The key distinction between SAD and general clinical depression lies in the timing of symptom onset, indicating different causative factors. If an individual predominantly experiences depressive symptoms during the autumn and winter months, with a noticeable improvement or remission in the summer, then it is likely categorised as SAD. It’s important to note that this doesn’t imply that seasonal depression should be regarded as less severe or that individuals cannot experience SAD during the summer, and understanding these nuances is crucial, as SAD, often nicknamed “winter blues”, SAD is unrelated to the stresses associated with certain times of year (such as Christmas), but rather due to the shift in daylight hours.

While SAD is more common in people who have pre-existing mood disorders such as depression or bipolar disorder, and diagnoses are more common in women than men, these symptoms can affect anyone Given the UK’s distance from the equator, Oxford students are particularly susceptible to the negative effects of seasonal transitions. Combined with the constant stresses of university work, it is inevitable that at one point or another, most students’ mental health and well-being will be impacted.

The science behind SAD

While the causes of seasonal depression are not entirely known, it is thought to be due to daylight savings causing shorter, gloomier days. When the clock goes back, reduced exposure to natural sunlight disrupts the body’s circadian rhythm. Sunlight aids the levels of molecules that maintain normal serotonin levels, so the reduction in sunlight hours significantly decreases serotonin (responsible for affecting mood). Furthermore, the change of season can disrupt the balance of melatonin (responsible for sleep) in the body, leading to sleeping difficulties such as insomnia, fatigue, and difficulties waking up in the mornings. These shifts, alongside an overall decrease in vitamin D, drain energy and motivation, and impact concentration, mood, and overall well-being – certainly not ideal for a student.

Seasonal depression and The Student

The onset of seasonal depression is a familiar experience for me, as I find my mood waning when the days grow shorter. The shift from summer to winter feels particularly abrupt, contrasting with the gradual return to warmth in the summer months. The prospect of venturing out and putting effort into one’s appearance diminishes as layers of Uniqlo heattech become a necessity to combat the biting cold. Even the glamour of ancient Oxford libraries loses its appeal given their notorious chilliness – a deterrent especially when trudging all the way from St. Hugh’s College.

While cafes exude a cosy ambiance, they too present challenges. Rainy days attract huge crowds seeking refuge, making it a struggle to secure a quiet corner for focused work without further distractions. There’s an innate comfort in gazing outside and witnessing the radiant sunlight, a stark contrast to the dreary grey of fog. The carefree nature of summer feels like a distant memory, making it harder to embrace the challenges that come with the new season.

Interestingly, my experience of the seasons has undergone a significant shift since moving to Italy for my year abroad. Despite the cold weather in Milan, the enjoyment of summer-like temperatures ranging from 20 to 30°C throughout September and October extended the sense of summer. Even during lectures, the lingering warmth and the absence of the need to bundle up like a snowman mitigated the impact of the weather on my mood compared to when I was in Oxford. This remains the case until later in Hilary as the days lengthen. Even when temperatures drop, the most distinct difference lies in the frequency of sunlight. Oxford often grapples with persistent grey days shrouded in clouds, whereas even a cold day in Milan tends to invite at least a bit of sun, making the chill more bearable.

Don’t just take my word for it. Leo Brnicanin, PPL finalist, shares similar challenges and understands the added difficulty of accomplishing tasks during the winter months. He attributes this struggle to the early onset of darkness and the pervasive cold weather, strengthening his desire for warmth and comfort under the covers rather than to study. Reflecting on the weather in England, he noted that the cold often translates to rain, creating a dreary and muddy environment that further contributes to a sense of confinement. Interestingly, he also draws a connection between work and seasonal depression; when he’s back home in London, the opportunity to engage in winter activities in the city is more enjoyable when unburdened by work commitments, whereas in Oxford he associates the demands of work with the cold weather, only intensifying these feelings of hopelessness.

Now, what can we do?

Despite these winter woes, there remains a glimmer of hope, especially while navigating the unique circumstances of Oxford. While conventional treatments for SAD like light therapy, wherein an individual sits in front of a light box emitting 10,000 lux every day, or taking vitamin D supplements are widely known, their accessibility to students can be a barrier. The repetition of advice to indulge in comforting activities, such as sipping chamomile tea or going for a walk, might seem cliché, but there is undeniable truth is the potential mood-enhancing effects of such simple actions, for it doesn’t hurt to at least try.

Fortunately, collective work stress sometimes means that there is a collaborative aspect of combating seasonal depression. Last year, my friends and I often committed to early morning study sessions at Pret, underscoring the significance of mutual accountability as I didn’t want to disappoint my friends (or myself). In the midst of academic pressures, the support of friends not only aids in overcoming morning lethargy, but also the sense of isolation exacerbated by the constraints of inclement weather.

Drawing from Leo’s experience, the strategy of rising earlier to confront responsibilities emerges as a shared approach. This proactive stance towards the day not only enhances personal motivation but also resonates with taking back control amid seasonal challenges.

So, it is undeniable that the pervasive impact of seasonal depression may not solely stem from the changing weather; rather, it unfolds within a complex interplay of atmospheric conditions, diminishing daylight, and the overwhelming academic demands placed on students. By acknowledging both the individual and collective dimensions of seasonal struggles, there emerges a pathway toward fostering a more supportive and resilient student community in the face of winter woes.

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