We’ve talked before about the importance of looking after yourself if you want to succeed in your career, whether it’s getting enough sleep or dealing with stress. However there's an area of wellbeing that often gets overlooked.
Mental health is still a bit of a taboo subject even though a quarter of the population will experience some kind of mental health issue over the course of a year. The most common diagnoses are anxiety and depression, and many students tend to be affected by both as they begin the Spring term.
Recognise that this is totally normal
The fact that the January blues has its own widely accepted nickname - even if it might oversimplify the problem - does mean that you're not alone. The first month of the year brings with it a host of biological, environmental and emotional factors that can combine to drag down your mood.
The weeks after Christmas can feel like a bit of an anticlimax. Maybe you had an epic festive period and now it’s back to reality, or you're sure everyone else had a blast and you feel left out.
The lack of sunlight in the winter months can affect your mood too. It causes a dip in serotonin levels and can lead to seasonal affective disorder, appropriately abbreviated to SAD.
You're also saddled with extra stress from exams, looming career choices and all the other responsibilities of student life. The point is that feeling this way is normal and nothing to be ashamed of.
Take small steps
It’s hard to fight something as amorphous and vague as your mood. You may feel you just want to sit around and do nothing while wrapped in a duvet, which is comforting for a day but won’t do you much good in the long term.
Taking small steps to lift your spirits will add up to big change over time. Get out in the fresh air and soak up some sunlight or if the changing year already feels monotonous, do something new.
You can also try and identify what is wrong and set clear goals for moving forward. It’s hard to feel positive when you have a cloud of problems but if you name them and realise it’s a finite list, it puts things into perspective and you can tackle them one by one.
Don’t put pressure on yourself
There is enough pressure in student life – exams, coursework, friends, careers – without adding your own. The Spring term can be a bit of a wake up call. First years, you might feel like the year has rushed by and you’re not ready for exams; for those facing finals, you may suddenly see the end in sight and panic. And no one likes the exams that come after the festive season.
Don’t feel like you suddenly need to do everything, whether it’s an extreme New Year’s resolution or a promise to get 100% in every exam with one week’s revision. If you want to take positive steps and succeed, make them reasonable, precise and possible, otherwise you will just feel worse.
Take care of yourself
Your physical health can go a long way to improving your mood. Just like sunlight, exercise stimulates serotonin production and a brisk walk in the wan winter sun is definitely better than hiding in your room all day.
Likewise a good diet is important for any kind of recovery, be it mental or physical. Even though sugar and fast food might be tempting, they’re not going to leave you feeling healthy in the long term. Learn to make a few balanced meals, which is pretty satisfying in itself and a manageable resolution.
Speaking of temptation, even though going out and having a few drinks might make you feel better that night, the morning after won’t be much fun. Save the partying for when you can actually enjoy it.
Talk to someone
January blues or SAD is very common, as is depression and anxiety in general. Even though talking about it is usually the first step to moving forward, many are reluctant to say they feel depressed or anxious.
Opening up to a friend, family member or tutor will go a long to making you feel less alone. They might have gone through a similar experience or have some sound advice. At the very least, they will be there to listen.
If you find yourself feeling low for more than a few weeks or your mood gets significantly worse then you may want to seek out your university's counselling service. These are free, anonymous and nonjudgemental and the counsellors are used to dealing with the many problems students face.