Friday, November 23, 2012

Tis the Season to be S.A.D.

Winter is the time for Christmas cheer when everyone gets excited to eat their body weight in food and cosy up on the sofa to watch Murder on the Orient Express. But this isn't for all people, yes you get your usual Chrismas Grinch who has a phobia of Tinsel but some people dread winter before it's even begun.

The winter blues is a somewhat colloquial term for when the weather is getting us down and we've forgotten that daylight isn't always laced in cloud and washed down with rain. Feeling low from time to time in winter is perfectly normal but some people get a much more serious seasonal depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or more conveniently - SAD.

SAD affects over 12 million people in the Northern Hemisphere and 2 million in the UK alone, yet it is surprisingly unknown. It is found predominantly in people between their late teens to thirties and symptoms are similar to depression:

 - a lack of energy during the day to get anything done
 - sleeping problems from too little to too much
 - prone to illness
 - mood changes - manic stages in Autumn and Spring which means SAD is often wrongly diagnosed as manic depression
 - Anxiety and social problems - panic attacks, stressed, doesn't want to see people
 - loss of labido
 - Craving of carbohydrates and weight gain
 - alcohol and drug abuse

In winter it is likely to wake up while it's dark and by the time you leave work/school it's dark again. Before the invention of the light bulb people would would sleep when it was dark and be active when it was light outside, simple. Nowadays we revolve our lives around a rota to keep up with someone else's demands and we ignore our natural body rhythms. Light tells our bodies that it's not time to sleep and we trick our brains on a day to day basis using laptops screens, tv screens and light bulbs. SAD is becoming more common and I predict it will become more-so in the future thanks to the facebook generation and the growing habit of staying up late in front of a computer screen.

You'd think all this artificial light would mean people shouldn't be getting SAD but this isn't the case. It is just meaning we are not getting "real light" from the biggest light bulb there is, the sun. Two chemicals in the brain are thought to effect SAD: melatonin and seretonin. Melatonin is related to our sleep cycle and high levels of it make us sleepy. Suffers of SAD have often described a need to hibernate over winter Studies on melatonin production in sufferers shows that they produce a higher-than-normal level of melanonin in Winter, similar to hibernating animals. People with SAD will struggle to get out of bed on the sunny side of lunchtime, if at all during the day. Seretonin is a happy chemical and it is produced in bucket loads when we have a really good hug. Sufferers of SAD and depression have lower levels of seretonin and it is thought that the seretonin in these people may not actually work properly.

Most people just have a mild form of SAD but at least 2% of the UK have a much more serious form of the condition where they cannot study or hold down a job over the Winter. Treatment is available but there is currently no real cure other than willpower. One of the most effective forms of treatment is the use of a lightbox which uses a special lightbulb giving off 2500 lux -10,000 lux (to put that in perspective since you don't really need to know what  a lux is: an office gives off about 400 lux but the sun ranges from 32000 - 100000lux). There are several different models but can be quite expensive and they are not currently available on the NHS. However more affordable models in the form of "sunrise clocks" are now available. The light can be switched on at a desk while you do work etc and simulates a little bit of sunshine indoors and has been proven to vastly improve symptoms when used daily.

To just prevent the winter blues or to help reduce the effects of SAD there are a few tricks you can live by:

 - When the sun is out, GET OUTSIDE!   I know here in Scotland even if the sun's out it doesn't seem strong enough to sunburn a ginger without their suncream, but it will make you feel better even if you don't notice it instantly. Try to get outside at least once a day while there is day light.Stick a note on your laptop to remind you.  If all else fails book a holiday to somewhere warm and sunny for a few weeks, after winning the lottery that is.

 - Exercise - This can help tick off two things at once, go a run or a cycle outside but if you prefer running in a room full of body builders then that's fine too. As we are all told, exercise releases endorphins which do make you feel good afterwards even if you feel like and asthmatic sloth in the process. Plus if you keep it up you'll start to get addicted and miss it when it's gone. Eating those green things they call vegetables helps too.

  Ignore stress in Winter - Now I know most people have exams around Christmas and they can't really be ignored but make that your biggest stress of the season. Plan ahead in winter, just like you were going to hibernate: get your presents sorted early and stock up the cupboards. Major life-changing plans should definitely be put off for a time when you will be feeling much more proactive, that is if you can sometimes things happen just when you don't want them too.

 - Morning Sunshine! - Try to get in a routine of waking up before the afternoon, you will get more out of your day and might even get outside. It may sound simple but in the height of winter it can seem so horrible outside there is no point getting out of bed. There is no use feeling sorry for yourself because everyone else will be pitying you, and not in the good way. In the end nobody is going to drag your carcass out of the bed but yourself.

Although SAD is prevalent in high northern and southern latitudes, you probably don't have it.  You probably have the "winter blues" I mentioned at the start, but if you are worried then go and see your GP or a counselling service.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

So, You've Finished School?

I just filled in a survey for uni and they asked me what advice I'd give a future student from a similar background as me. I thought I would take it as an opportunity to share things I wish I knew when I started the UCAS process; the tedious prelude to one of the most important chapters of your life...

Make sure you choose your course wisely and go for something you think you'll genuinely enjoy, not just something you think you will get you a job. If you do your degree well you should get a job regardless, plus it is more likely you will end up doing something you enjoy. Sometimes to know what kind of person you are or should become it is good to look back to what you did as a child. Back then you just do what you enjoyed and nothing more as you were in a care-free cushioned world without the worry of jobs, money and maintaining your dignity.If you have to take a year or so out to figure this out then go ahead. Don't let a school force you into applying for something you are not sure you want to do.  If it turns out university isn't for you then that's fine and don't let your school try to change your mind just so they get an extra tick on their inspections. Some of the most influential(and richest!) people I know never went to university at all.

When it comes to picking a university, choose a university which has a good reputation with their students and not just with the league tables. Meeting new people and discovering who you are are one of the best reasons to go to uni, otherwise all you will get out of the experience is a bit of paper with your name and a crest. It's time to stop being who you think you should be and just be yourself, it's not school anymore and nobody really cares what clothes you wear.

Don't be scared to live up to the student stereotype, it's the only time you can!
Don't stress over lectures and coursework too much in first year. I'm not saying don't go or work hard, it's just you probably aren't going to miss much that you can't read up on later. First year is a prime time to join as many societies than humanely possible and add all those drunken toilet best friends on facebook. Do something interesting with your time and learn something you've always wanted to learn or get a part time job to add to your infinite list of skills. Employers will be more interested in the people who can show they know the world outside the library. You have all of third and fourth year to slave away in the library and complaining how young everyone is and how little money and time you have, as that's when the grades start to add up.

If you apply and hate your course, it's not the end of the world. Some people are guilty of just sticking it out to not cause a fuss, eg yours truly.Don't listen to other opinions and do what makes you happy, it's much easier to realise this sooner rather than later. Its surprisingly easy to change course in first, or even second year.

If you make good friends at uni, stick by them as they are probably going to be in your life from now on. It's likely you'll make hundreds of new"friends" in your first few years but only a few will last the distance and those you thought would might just change come third year and it could sneak up on you. Sometimes you don't meet your best friends until third and fourth year when the classes get smaller and you start hanging around with more like-minded people. Don't be deceived by the fact that because you are friends means you will be great flatmates, everyone has (surprisingly) different living standards and they don't always correspond to yours.

Your time at university will undoubtedly be full of memories, or lack of them ;). Getting the most out of university is all about finding a perfect balance of the work hard play hard ethic. Unlike a lot of people's experience at school, you will find somewhere to fit in even if it isn't straight away you'll know when it happens.  Don't hold back and just make the most of what's on offer to you, never again will you have so much opportunity just served on a plate right under your nose.

If you have any of your own pieces of advice for those fresh faced Freshers then post them below!
Uni allowed me to climb Mt Kilimanjaro for crying out loud! Get out there!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Busy Bee!

There are so many things I need to write to you guys about such as the rest of my time in Tanzania, the Bon Iver gig I was privileged to go to last week followed by the hairy bikers and the recent news that I am heading out to Canada in January...

Unfortunately exam season has hit and so my workload at uni has quadrupled. After the 14th December I will be back on top form!

Have a nice picture of Justin Vernon to tide you over for now.

Friday, November 02, 2012

I pretended to be a scientist....

Although I am studying a biology degree, I often feel like a bit of an art student in a lab coat. I thought I'd add to my facade by writing about science. One thing I love more than travelling and food is sleep, so I decided to get all scientific about sleep: