A SOAS student guide to coping with cold nights and course work

Long winter WP

Balancing assignments, jobs, hobbies, societies and other commitments can all take their toll as it is – but the dark winter hours are long, and a lack of sunlight can have an even more adverse effect on students. 

Growing up in a village in Iceland that doesn’t see sunlight for a whole month in winter, I’ve developed a few ways to deal with the sun’s absence. After speaking to many of my friends here who have been having difficulties adjusting to this change in climate, here’s some of the advice I’ve both given and received – hopefully to help more of my fellow students get through the winter. 

Personally, I try to embrace and enjoy the dark, as it can act as an enabler for my studying. I cosy up at home with candles and fairy lights when I sit down to write up my assignments, in a true Nordic “hygge” style. Unfortunately, I’ve been less successful with that technique while reading, since falling asleep tends to be very tempting.

That is when other methods have become useful, but instead of me talking about myself in this blog, I decided to make use of SOAS’s international and diverse student body, and reached out to my fellow international students to see ways that they’ve come up with to cope with it all.

Their advice can be summed up in a few categories: 

  • Work out and exercise. Some go for long runs, others go to the gym or join fitness classes, and for some, it’s enough to take a walk to the nearest park. I signed up for pole fitness classes, which is something I’ve been wanting to do for many years now. I believe that whatever it is that you’re interested in, you will be able to find it in London. SOAS also has many societies that offer exercise – so you can get it right on campus, and make some friends while you’re at it! 
  • Schedule social time. Reserve at least an hour or two in your calendar to meet your friends, get out of the library, and have some fun. It clears the mind and resets it to continue with your work later – perhaps with a new perspective! It’s also very useful to talk to your friends about your assignments, as they might have some useful insights. 
  • Be open to talk about struggles or challenges to friends. Often, as you open up, you realise that you are not alone as you thought, and that your situation not as bad as your mind is telling you. Sometimes just talking about an issue helps you come up with solutions yourself. 
  • Set aside time where you do something that’s purely for yourself. That can simply be watching Netflix, taking a long bath, or learning a new skill. Many expressed that cooking relieves stress, and sharing food with others is a social activity. 
  • Study communally, don’t close yourself off alone. Organise study sessions with your friends and classmates, try to study with a partner that fits your study style, and give/receive lots of hugs! While studying, it’s also important to take intervals during study sessions; read for about an hour and take 10-15 min breaks. 

Basically, engage in the little things that remind you that life is more than a deadline – above being a student, you are a human, and you are not alone in this.

Some more creative and unconventional ways included: 

  • Tanning beds – Use with caution. While tanning beds give some Vitamin D, warmth, and a tan, they can also contribute to skin cancer and other skin-related diseases, so if you do want to try them, make sure it’s for a short period of time, and infrequently. 
  • Gin and Tonic — One student suggested writing like Hemingway; “write drunk, edit sober”, which is another piece of advice that should be taken with a pinch of salt, but each student finds their own way. 

SOAS offers drop-in sessions at the Advice and Wellbeing Centre for students, where they can meet with an advisor for about 15 minutes. They’ve also put together a list of various resources in an online “self help library

I went for a drop-in session, and asked Alison Barty, who is one of the senior advisors, for some advice. A lot of the advice she gave me echoes the advice I received from my friends – but in addition to that, Alison also mentioned: 

  • Look for small sources of joy in daily life. For Alison, it’s the first sign of leaves on the trees, which are one of the first indicators of spring. For me, it is seeing small acts of kindness by strangers, no matter how small – someone holding a door for another person, seeing someone give up a seat on the tube – as well as glimpses of sunlight, or a cat strolling down the street. 
  • Take Vitamin D. This is particularly important for students who come from countries that have more sunlight, as their bodies will be used to getting larger doses. Many students change their diet during their studies, whether that’s because they’re in a new country, because of stress, or other reasons. This can impact their vitamin intake, and having your vitamin levels checked by a doctor regularly can help to see if you’re getting the nutrients you need. 
  • Go outside. Even though its cloudy outside, research has proven that being outside, even if only for a short time, is good for mental health. 

Even though people from other countries in the Northern Hemisphere are used to long winters, they also tend to suffer due to the grey skies and lack of direct sunlight, so if you come from a country with long winters and have been feeling down – despair not. This is completely normal, and you are not the only one.

Coming from a place with even longer hours of darkness, I didn’t think that I would have difficulties, but I’ve had to really take advantage of all my coping mechanisms. 

Alison and I also discussed the grading system in the UK – the British system works in a different way than many grading systems around the world, so an international student may face difficulties in accepting or understanding their grades. Students that are accustomed to achieving 90% for assignments are now receiving 60-70% grades, which takes a toll on many students.

Alison used a good metaphor – just like we know the traffic is on the left here, it takes some time to get used to, and it can be helpful to discuss your grades and assignments with your tutor or lecturer to understand the rationale behind the grade. That can also be helpful for future assignments. The CILT (Centre of Learning and Teaching) at SOAS also offers a variety of academic support that can help ease the mental load. 

One of the biggest revelations from my conversation with Alison was learning that there are SAD lamps available on campus! SAD (Season Affective Disorder) lamps imitate the effect we get from direct sunlight and can help lift the mood – despite a name that might suggest the opposite.

student advice and wellbeing sad lamp

Many of my friends who live in Nordic countries have highly recommended using them for 10-15 min daily or during study session. There is one available in SL40 on the lower ground of the Paul Webley Wing in Senate House and another one at the SU office. 

Most important is to remember that you are not alone, help is available, and spring is nearing with warmer weather, longer days and more rays of sunshine! 

  • Rut Einarsdóttir is a SOAS Digital Ambassador and Operations Manager for SCRAP Weapons, a project for global disarmament in the CISD Department at SOAS, currently pursuing a MSc in Violence, Conflict and Development.

Share this post