Seasonal affective disorder

Seasonal affective disorder

In the UK, our clocks went back an hour last night. Summer is officially over, autumn is upon us and we are moving into winter. Many of you may be enjoying the fresh mornings wrapped up in cosy jumpers indulging in hot chocolates, but the shorter days and longer hours of darkness can make life a real struggle for some people.

It’s totally normal to feel happier and more energetic during the longer summer days, and feel that you want to stay cocooned in your duvet and sleep-in longer during the winter months. However, some people experience these dips in mood a lot more intensely than others.

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What is seasonal affective disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a unique type of mental health disorder and some call it the “winter depression”. As the name suggests, the time of year has a significant impact on a person’s general mood and energy levels, with symptoms similar to depression. It causes feelings of despair, irritability, heightened carbohydrate cravings and a loss of enjoyment in daily activities.

 

“It’s as if my mood turns grey the same time as the sky”

– Mind UK

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What are the causes?

Altered body clock: As discussed in a previous blog post, our bodies have an internal clock. When light is sensed at the back of the eye on the retina, signals are sent to a region in the brain called the SCN (suprachiasmatic nucleus). The SCN then sends signals to all our others cells in our body to tells them what processes they should be carrying out. Basically, daylight tells our body we should be awake, and darkness tells our body we should be asleep, this is called our circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm helps to regulate food digestion, appetite, energy levels, sleep, and mood. However, people with SAD are thought to have a disruption to this rhythm.

Low serotonin: Serotonin, one of the “happy hormones”, is a neurotransmitter that controls how happy we are and boosts our mood. It’s thought to be low in patients with SAD during the winter. Research shows that people with SAD have higher levels of the serotonin transporter (SERT) which carries serotonin away from the site of action. Higher levels of SERT, means lower available serotonin to induce its effects, and increased feelings associated with depression are experienced.

High melatonin: Melatonin is another neurotransmitter, but it affects our sleep quantity and quality as well as our mood. Normally, melatonin is inhibited during the day, and as it gets darker its production increases. This is why we feel sleepy at night-time. Patients with SAD produce melatonin at higher levels disrupting how awake they are during the day.

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What can help to alleviate SAD?

The aim is to get better hormonal regulation. Here’s a few options:

  • Lightbox therapy: A lamp emitting the same wavelength of light as the sun. They artificially extend the photo period (amount of light) in your day. This helps to suppress melatonin production.
  • Diet high in tryptophan: Tryptophan is an amino acid and it’s a building block for serotonin. More tryptophan = more serotonin production. Foods such as turkey, chicken, tuna, salmon and seeds are high in this amino acid.
  • Regular exercise: Exercise decreases stress levels via increasing serotonin levels.

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Click on the links below for a little more reading if you wish…

1.  Molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm. Click here.

2. Seasonal difference in brain serotonin transporter binding predicts symptom severity in patients with seasonal affective disorder. Click here.

3. The Effects of Dietary Tryptophan on Affective Disorders. Click here.

4. Bright-Light Therapy in the Treatment of Mood Disorders. Click here.

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The power of mentoring – Stemettes & MonsterConfidence

The power of mentoring – Stemettes & MonsterConfidence

It’s National Mentoring Day tomorrow, a day to recognise the importance and benefits of mentoring, whether that’s being a mentor or being a mentee.

One of my aspirations is to inspire the younger generation to pursue a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). I was fortunate enough to be part of the amazing MonsterConfidence event here in Southampton with Stemettes a couple of weeks ago.

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Who are Stemettes?

STEMETTES 'Monster Confidence' @ Southampton  - ©Paparazzi VIP Photography

Stemettes is a social enterprise who aim to empower young women to consider a career in STEM. They do this by introducing these ladies to amazing women who are already working and succeeding in the field. Stemettes organise many events throughout the year ranging from panel events to “hackathons” to the MonsterConfidence tour.

“Women only make 21% of the core STEM workforce.”

Wise Campaign

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They’re doing a fantastic job at accomplishing their mission. Just under 15,000 young women have attended their events, and a whopping 95% of attendees have increased interest in STEM after just one Stemettes event.

So! If you’re a young women aged 15-22 in the UK and Ireland, and would like a boost in confidence and become more informed in what the world of STEM has to offer you, then check out their upcoming events!

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Mentoring at MonsterConfidence

Head Stemette Anne-Marie has set up the MonsterConfidence tour to provide confidence, inspiration and guidance for girls and young women who may want to get involved in the world of STEM, or are unsure whether it’s the right path for them.

Just under 100 young women attended the Southampton event which was full of inspirational talks, interview practice, mentoring, career workshops and meeting people in industry. It was a fun day full of energy, encouragement and of course food!

STEMETTES 'Monster Confidence' @ Southampton  - ©Paparazzi VIP Photography

As a speed mentor I spoke to young girls one-to-one for a speedy 6 minutes a time. I was there to act as a listener, a source of support and an advisor. We discussed my journey, what they liked at school, what they struggle with and where their next steps in education might be. I was there to answer all the different questions they had and it was great to talk to a wide variety of students. Some knew their career direction already, some had an idea of potential options, but many students felt unsure. A few of the girls I spoke to said how much the event had inspired them which is fantastic. One girl even said a talk in the morning had inspired her to look into a completely different area of STEM! That just proves the power these type of events can have.

STEMETTES 'Monster Confidence' @ Southampton  - ©Paparazzi VIP Photography

I was also given the opportunity to do a lightening talk at the end of the day. I spoke about my experiences from school (and how I thought I was always going to go into graphic design) to my PhD in physiology and current aspirations to be a science communicator.

“Many expressed an improved perception, awareness *and* confidence in STEM careers.” 

Stemettes

 

Despite being there as a mentor, even I got a little bit of mentoring! Dr. Jen Gupta, an astrophysicist by day, a comedian and presenter by night shared her journey with us, how you can have more than one passion, and how you can have confidence in what you do.

The event ended with the attendees taking part in a Soapbox challenge where they shared what they had learnt from the day. They showed confidence and they showed that they were mindful about their future. It was incredible to see what they had learnt, and truly proved that Stemettes is doing a brilliant job.

STEMETTES 'Monster Confidence' @ Southampton  - ©Paparazzi VIP Photography

I never had opportunity like this when I was at school. Looking back, I only really had the guidance of school teachers and my parents. Don’t get me wrong, that was great. I went to a great school and my parents were supportive of my choices, but there is so much more support out there now. No matter whether you want to pursue the STEM route, or go another direction there really is a wealth of support out there for you. Seek it out!

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Once this PhD is finished and I have a little more free time, I aim to carry on being involved with mentoring events like this for young people in STEM.

Stemettes – hopefully I can become one of your Sherpas in the not too distant future?!

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Follow Stemettes on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and check out their website!

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Scientist turned comedian – My Bright Club experience

Scientist turned comedian – My Bright Club experience

Since I’ve been blogging and exploring the world of science communication, I never expected to do some of the things I’ve done. Nearly a month ago I performed my first stand-up comedy set. Who would have thought it!

The event was called Bright Club. It’s where researchers become comedians for the evening, something I never imagined I’d be part of, other than in the audience! One of the organisers approached me through my blog and asked if I’d be up for performing. My heart skipped a few beats as I read the message but in a moment of pure madness, I thought I’d be brave and accepted. 

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September 9th: Training session

The reality that I was actually going to attempt comedy on stage hit. We had our first training session. This was a great opportunity to ask questions, get some tips and to meet the other performers. At this point we were two weeks out. I had two weeks to make a script, and most importantly, make it funny. No pressure.

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Brainstorming ideas

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September 16th: Rehearsals

With one week to go it was rehearsal time. In my head the jokes I planned to say were funny, but were they to other people?! Thankfully I got some laughs which put me at ease. We all shared tips on how to improve the content/wording of our sets so I came away with some worthwhile changes. It was definitely a boost for us all. So a few tweaks, and time to practice with my pretend microphone.

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September 22nd: The day of Bright Club Southampton #9

At 5.30pm we all rocked up at the venue to do a mic test and settle down for the evening. Not going to lie, the nerves started to kick in!

After the first researcher performed, I was second to take to the stage. My set was titled “A PhD: The trials & tribulations“. I spoke about my research, the moment I was asked to perform, my failings in trying to inspire the younger generation and what being cooped up alone in the lab for 18 hours a day does to you. I wrapped the set up with my top 5 tips for surviving a PhD. They may not be tips you were expecting, you’ll just have to click the image below and watch it for yourself to find out!

My set

My jokes were well received and getting the first lot of laughs calmed my nerves. My aim was to get one laugh and I accomplished that, so I was one happy girl. The audience were fantastic, and I had lots of support from my friends who came to watch. Of course the event attracted other researchers, but what was awesome is that many members of the audience were outside the world of STEM from all sorts of career backgrounds. People’s friends and partners came to watch, and members of the public got involved too.

I signed up to something totally out of my comfort zone, I put myself out there, I accomplished the task, and celebrated with a gin. Happy days.

Can science and comedy go hand-in-hand? Could comedy be a useful tool in engaging more of the public with research? Would you consider giving stand-up comedy a go?

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All the other researchers did an awesome job talking about climate change to being a stem cell detective, from the internet to embracing your weird identity! You can watch their sets by heading over to Bright Club Southampton YouTube channel, as well as all previous performances. Keep up-to-date on upcoming performances and new podcast episodes by following the Bright Club Southampton Facebook page.

Thank you to Nikhil and Dave from Bright Club Southampton for asking me to perform, it was a fantastic experience!

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PhDs, academia and mental health

PhDs, academia and mental health

It’s October 10th, and it’s World Mental Health Day.

It therefore seemed like a good time to talk about PhDs, the world of academia and mental health. It’s a topic that is commonly overlooked, yet so important to have awareness of.

Embarking on a PhD is exciting, they come with amazing opportunities and you’ll be an expert in your research field by the end of it. You’re the creator of knowledge and have the ability to share it with the world. How awesome is that? A PhD can take 3-7 years depending where you are in the world. Yes, it’s a long journey. Kind of like an endurance event – a lot of people go through the motions, you get the highs and you get the lows.

Everyone’s PhD journey is different, there are many factors which dictate how easy/hard the ride will be. For some it can be a very isolating experience and research shows a high proportion of students struggle with mental health, from anxiety to clinical depression.

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Self Reflected in Violets - Greg A Dunn Design
Self Reflected in Violets – Greg A Dunn Design

We don’t often like to talk about our struggles in life. We don’t want to appear weak to others. We want people to see the good aspects of our lives. Sometimes we may struggle mentally but we don’t want to even admit that to ourselves because the realisation is a scary one. It’s a taboo subject for sure.

There’s a culture of acceptance around mental health issues in the world of academia. This acceptance needs to be broken down. Why should people suffer in their job? Since when was that ok? Of course a PhD is difficult, it’s the highest qualification a person can get, and we don’t expect an easy ride but the common view “A PhD is supposed to be hard” is not ok. There’s a difference between a journey being challenging and a journey where struggling mentally is accepted as that’s just the norm.

Over the last few years, people have started to speak out more, which is fantastic. Sharing experiences can help others in the same position a great deal as it helps them to relate to another person.

 

Reflection

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What research says:

A study in Belgium, published earlier this year in the journal Research Policy, investigated the prevalence of mental health problems in 3,659 PhD students. Here’s what they found:

  • 51% experience psychological distress
  • 32% experience common psychiatric disorders.
  • The prevalence of mental health problems is higher in PhD students than in other highly educated populations.

The main causes include: work-family conflict, work overload, unrealistic demands, unsupportive supervisors, interpersonal problems at work and sleep deprivation as a result of worrying about work.

A report in the USA also revealed that between 42% and 48% of University of California science and engineering PhD students are depressed.

Both studies add to the literature surrounding academia and mental health, and emphasises the need to put policies in place to support the issue.

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“Universities should adopt mental health as a strategic priority, implementing a whole university approach, with students and staff involved at all stages of the journey.” – Universities UK

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So what can you do for you?

IG tip #14

 

Self-care – Remember your mental and physical wellbeing is a priority, look after you! Fellow bloggers (dr.ofwhat? and Heidi R Gardner) have written blog posts about self-care so go and check those out!

Have a nose at my blog posts – I share advice on various aspects linked to the PhD life in my PhD SOS feature, from how to get out of the PhD slump, to easy ways to add exercise into your busy schedule, to getting your focus and motivation back – check them out!

Talk about your feelings – Whether that’s to family/friends/partner or a mentor. A mentor can be hugely useful. Seek out what support services your University provides. Talking about your struggles may help you understand your feelings a bit more, and that self-awareness might help you to push for change.

Be proactive in creating change – Talk to relevant charities, work with your university. Help to increase awareness of the issue and help to break these acceptances down. Perhaps you could promote wellbeing and mindfulness sessions within your university?

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Please remember:

  • You are not alone, there’s a wealth of support out there.
  • You can have a social life as well as get a PhD.
  • It is not ok to work yourself to the point of illness.
  • It is not ok for academics to encourage this behaviour.
  • Asking for help is not a weakness, seek help and try to put advice into practice.

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Conscious about conservation – Krissy Middleton

Conscious about conservation – Krissy Middleton

It’s the first blog post of the month which means it’s time for another Scientist Showcase. For October please welcome the inspirational Krissy (@conservationistkrissy).

Krissy is a 27 year-old postgrad studying Conservation and Biodiversity and writes her super amazing blog “Conservationist Krissy”, which you just have to check out! I love following what she does via Instagram, I learn a lot from her. I’m therefore so excited to introduce you to her, over to you Krissy!

Krissy

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Tell us a little bit about you

People always ask questions like “what made you want to..?” or “do you remember the moment you decided to..?’, but to be honest I never had that ‘life changing moment’ people speak of.  My affinity for wildlife and the natural world is something that has resonated in me since before I can recall!  It may sound cliché, however, I could not imagine doing anything else with my life; I feel a genuine responsibility to protect our planet and the creatures we share it with.

After finishing school, I travelled to Madagascar for conservation, studied sports science for a year, worked in client servicing (finance), researched wildlife in South Africa, backpacked around Indo and Australia, and then decided to return to school and follow my dream.  Earlier this year I finally achieved my first class degree in Animal Conservation, and am beyond excited to be a part of the latest Conservation student cohort at University of Exeter. 

I’m passionate about community engagement and science communication, I want to facilitate plastic pollution mitigation efforts, I want to travel and work in the field, and I’m really interested in solutions to human-wildlife conflict. So, who knows where I’ll end up!

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What inspired you to start your blog?

University has opened my eyes to so many conservation issues and cutting-edge wildlife research, and has allowed me to develop my writing skills.  So, a little over a year ago I realised I wanted to communicate what I was learning, to influence and educate other people, and to simply have an outlet for everything I was thinking and feeling about conservation.  So enter ‘Conservationist Krissy’!

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So you’re transitioning to a zero-waste lifestyle? Tell us more!

Being a conservation student can have its drawbacks; learning about all the issues our planet is facing can be infuriating and overwhelming.  BUT, that doesn’t dissuade me.  I have seen the power humans can have when they come together; the change that one person can make, no matter how small.

I am working towards eliminating plastic from my life and reducing the waste that we produce.  Marine plastic pollution is a devastating issue and one that does need to be taken seriously.  I want everybody reading to understand that myself and other zero-waste bloggers are not preaching, we are simply passionate about protecting the environment and honestly believe that a zero-waste lifestyle is do-able.

Hopefully, when people understand the impact it has on the creatures we love (turtles, whales, and even your dog!) they will feel compelled to make a change.

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Any beginner tips to lead a more environmentally sustainable way of living?

Buy the following items: a re-usable coffee mug and a re-usable water bottle.  Single-use plastic bottles are one of the worst offenders and if we could all commit to refusing them we would start to significantly reduce plastic waste.

The best advice I can give is to organise yourself if you are committed to making a change – do your research, decide where and when you can do your shopping, and take everything you need! If you’re going to make the change sustainable (longevity), it’s best to make changes gradually – it’s like dieting, you won’t stick to it if you wake up one day and try and do it all at once.

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How do you balance work and personal life?

It’s something I’ve always struggled with because I am so desperate to do well.  Having said that, I am learning.  I do my best to fit in the things that I enjoy; Crossfit, hiking/walking, reading, and relaxing with my two boys.  It sounds ludicrously obvious, but when I make time for these things I perform better, and I enjoy my work more.

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I am going into this year with a slightly different attitude.  I am organised, I schedule, and I adhere to deadlines.  But I will not turn down the things that matter; I am going to make sure I take time for me, and for my relationship.

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Thank you so much for asking me to be part of your showcase feature. Keep doing you Lisa! x

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And finally, a day in the life of Krissy!

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A massive thank you to Krissy for sharing her story and tips in helping us lead a more environmentally sustainable life! She really is so inspirational so please check out her blog and follow her and her journey on Instagram.

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