I'm an international student at McGill and I come from a country that experiences a hot and dry climate for the majority of the year. I felt like the weather during the fall was fine, but I’m having trouble getting through the Winter semester so far. I'm more depressed now than I was a couple of months ago, for what seems like no reason. I’m worried that I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. What can I do?
Worried About Winter (WAW)
I’m glad you wrote in about this, because this issue affects far more students at McGill than most people realize. An estimated two to three per cent of the general population of Canada is diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), but many more grapple with its effects during Montreal’s harsh winters, when sunlight is a rarity. Thankfully, there are productive ways to mitigate weather-induced depression, some of which involve gearing up and embracing the cold.
While it is important to stay warm in the winter, it is also necessary to spend time outdoors. Studies show that soaking in even the slightest bit of sunshine and fresh air can make a big difference in improving your overall mental health. Although it may be hard to motivate yourself to do so, try to set aside some time out of each day to go for a walk or run outside. If you normally take the bus or metro to get to school, consider walking or biking instead—or if you have long gaps between mid day classes, take a few minutes to stroll around campus.
You may also consider taking up a winter hobby. Montreal offers many activities to make the most of the season, such as ice-skating on Mont Royal’s Beaver Lake, snowshoeing to class, or learning how to ski with McGill’s Ski and Snowboard Club. Not only will taking up a winter hobby be beneficial to you in fighting SAD this year, it will also give you something to look forward to for winters to come.
Another great trick for combating SAD is to stick to a schedule. While it is easy to allow yourself to stay inside and sleep the day away to avoid the cold, it is essential to maintain a regular sleep schedule and continue embracing what little light the winter does offer. Although waking up daily at, say, 9 a.m. is difficult, especially if your first class doesn’t start until 4 p.m., it becomes easier to motivate yourself to wake up early once you develop habits that will encourage you to get out of the house. If you’re a regular coffee consumer, try going out to buy a warm cup from a café at the same time every morning. Likewise, find activities to do every day after your classes end, such as going to the gym, cooking warm foods, or reading—whatever keeps you awake. A lack of sunlight may lead to vitamin D deficiency, so consider taking a daily supplement or renting a SAD lamp from the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) and sitting in front of it every evening. These habits will help you acclimate to a daily schedule of productivity during the day and relaxation at night, improving your mood in the winter.
Finally, remember to continue socializing. Making plans with friends forces you to leave the house, even when you may not feel up to it. It may be beneficial to schedule a weekly date with a friend, or set a regular reminder on your phone to text friends that you haven’t seen in a while in order to make sure you don’t isolate yourself for months on end. Finally, don’t be afraid to reach out to your friends about how you are feeling—chances are some of them may be going through the same things you are. Together, you can hold each other accountable and make a plan to combat SAD—and before you know it, spring will be here.