Saturday 13 January 2024

Navigating the winter blues as a PhD student

Chrissie shares her experience of managing the winter blues and tips for getting through this alongside doing a PhD. 

- Chrissie 

Life as a PhD student can bring its own unique benefits and challenges. We get to pursue our own intellectual curiosities and benefit from flexible working hours. But doing a PhD also means working alone, juggling lots of responsibilities, and managing the stresses of a demanding degree. PhD students are particularly vulnerable to poor mental health, so during the winter months – when many people experience a drop in mood and experience the winter blues – it’s especially important that we take extra time to look after our wellbeing. 

PhD life amidst the winter blues

I’m currently a PhD student and work predominantly from home. I’ve come to realise that the winter season affects my mental health, and in turn my ability to work. I can feel my mood dropping as I watch the sunset during working hours, my motivation sinking with it. My work output reduces, my daily word counts get smaller, and I feel less enthused about working alone at a desk. I feel the desperation kick in as I think to myself, ‘I must go outside!’, and take myself on a walk or enforced errand to capitalise on what’s left of the daylight. It can be challenging to keep working in this frame of mind. 

As PhD students, our schedule is different to that of other students. Postgraduate researchers don’t follow semester patterns in the same way. So, while campus winds down for Christmas, and undergraduate students leave their university cities for hometowns, we continue working and living our normal routines. This can make it all the more challenging - emails land in our inbox from student unions reminding us that term is over, but for most PhD students, we keep working to meet all our work demands and deadlines.

Winter blues or Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Many of us may feel a bit lower during the winter months – with the lack of sunlight causing a dip in our mood and shorter days limiting evening activities. According to the Wellcome Trust, 1 in 5 people “claim to experience the winter blues”, and serotonin levels tend to be lowest in winter. The government also advises that everyone takes vitamin D supplements in autumn and winter. 

But it’s important to note that what some people experience is actually a type of seasonal depression, known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). If you think you may have SAD, you can read more about the symptoms and when to see a GP from here, plus some ways to help manage it here. 

Tips to keep going during winter

Doing a PhD is already stressful enough, and lonely too. Data on PhD students showed that 37% “sought help for anxiety or depression caused by PhD study”, while 80% said they “believe a career in research can be lonely and isolating”. It’s helpful to acknowledge this vulnerability, and emphasise that it’s therefore especially important for PhD students to take extra steps towards self-care during winter. I try to do the following: 

Consider workspace

I predominantly work from home, as do many PhD students. This can mean waking up in the dark, working indoors, and finishing work in the dark. So I try to schedule time outside (like breaks, walks). You could also move around – for example go to coffee shops, libraries, a designated study space if you have one. This forces you outside (even for a little while) and offers a change of scenery, which may give a bit of a mood boost.  

Adapt work expectations

If you find that your productivity shifts during winter, that’s okay. In my experience, my output ebbs and flows – sometimes I get lots done in a day or week, sometimes not so much. These waves are reflective of the writing and research processes, and are natural and expected. It’s all about making the PhD journey more sustainable, and aligning your working pattern with your energy levels and work capacities. 

Practice gratitude for the season

Generally I’ve learned that I struggle in winter, so I try to hold on to things that bring me joy during this time period. Engaging with festivities around Christmas helps, such as going to a market at the weekend, watching a Christmas film with a friend, or getting a fun winter drink while I work at a coffee shop.

Get outside when there’s daylight (especially when there’s sunshine!)

This is perhaps no surprise, as we’re often encouraged to do this – it helps our circadian rhythms, and generally makes us feel better.  But it’s important to emphasise that no work is more important than mental health. Even if I feel like I don’t have time for a break, I try to remember that it will help my headspace in the long run (and probably also make me more productive as a result!). 

I’m writing these suggestions not as a self-care wizard, but simply someone experiencing these challenges myself and figuring it out along the way - and not just get through it, but keep my PhD on track as well. Most of all, my advice to any student at this time of year would be: listen to what your body is telling you about your physical and mental health, and what support or comforts it needs. 

Whether you are looking for support for your own mental health at university or supporting a friend, help is available.

Chrissie Thwaites is a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds, funded by the AHRC. During her studies she has discovered how widespread mental health struggles are for postgraduate researchers. She is therefore passionate about advocating for wellbeing within higher education, as well as amongst those navigating the challenges of young adult life.

No comments:

Post a Comment