Hibernation and how to stay positive during the winter months

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As we return to Durham from the winter holidays, the days are getting longer but there are still many a dreary evening to get through before things begin to feel a bit brighter.

Some animals have adapted to cope by hibernating through our long, cold winters. This process is more than animals merely taking a long sleep. It produces a state of minimal activity and significant changes in metabolism. It is characterised by low body-temperature, slow breathing and low heart and metabolic rate.

Animals who hibernate usually live longer compared to other animals of the same size and recent studies into marmots and bats, using ‘epigenetic clocks’ which map genes over time, suggest that this could be because hibernation slows down biological ageing in these animals.

Although this may not be an option for your average human being, especially for one at university, human hibernation is much closer in our history that you may originally think. Research published in 2020 even suggested that an extinct human species was capable of hibernation, like that seen in bears today, only 400,000 years ago.

Yet no matter how much some of us may wish for it to be possible, humans cannot hibernate through the winter months in the modern age. So, what can you do to make the next couple of months not only bearable, but even enjoyable?

Whilst there are several well-known ways you can improve your mood and mental health during the winter such as getting enough sleep, hydrating, and exercising, there are some others that may not be immediately as obvious.

Research shows that getting as much exposure to daylight as possible can be extremely beneficial to people’s mental health. There are so many ways this sunlight is beneficial for us. Sunlight can trigger the release of serotonin in the brain and this increase in serotonin is linked to increased mood levels. It is also a source of vitamin D which, when there is not enough in the body, can cause people to feel anxious or low but just 15 minutes of exposure to sunlight is enough to gain the benefits linked with vitamin D.

Another common issue during the winter is insomnia, and sunlight can help with this too. It supports the production of melatonin, which is the chemical that helps enable us to sleep well at night. So, whether you are going on a short 15-minute walk through Durham City, or having lunch outside during a busy study session, the sun can help make the next few months better for everyone.

Having plans throughout the upcoming term can also be extremely beneficial to your mental health and wellbeing because, when things begin to feel out of control or if the weather is getting you down, having things to look forward to can promote optimism and excitement. This could be getting involved in some new societies, planning events like film nights, dinners and bar crawls with close friends or simply putting in time for some rest and relaxation throughout term.

Psychologist Kari Leibowitz has said that the key to combating the winter blues may be by embracing Scandinavian winter mindsets. Leibowitz studied a town in Norway and discovered that even during the darkest periods of the year, the inhabitants of this town did not show the depression and anxiety commonly associated with our winters. She found that the more people saw winter as an exciting opportunity to enjoy the season, the better they and their mental health fared during these months.

The importance of positivity during the winter months cannot be overstated and this positivity can be formed in a myriad of ways from meditation and mindfulness to watching your favourite movies or listening to your favourite music. Staying positive, however cliché, seems to be one of the best ways to survive, and maybe even enjoy, winter time.

Image: Nathan Dumlao via Unsplash

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