Janice Hopper explores how we can avoid Seasonal Affective Disorder by embracing the wonders of the night sky with stargazing
When summer’s a distant memory, and autumn begins to fade away, many people see winter as a season that represents a sense of lack – the absence of light and heat. When you think about it, it’s a maelstrom of negativity from the get-go, so perhaps all of us can benefit from reframing winter from a time of ‘less’ to a time of abundance.
According to BUPA, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) affects up to three in 100 adults at some point in their life. When it comes to tackling SAD, the impetus for experts will focus on light. Psychologist Dr Audrey Tang explains that: “Less sunlight means less serotonin, which impacts the regulation of our bodily functions; more melatonin (produced at night) may make us sleepy. Getting as much natural sunlight as possible can help in managing symptoms of SAD.”
But lifting our mood can come in many forms over winter and, for the majority of us, improving general wellbeing as the days get shorter can be helped by actively celebrating the long nights and the opportunities they create. “Prepare to maintain your health in advance,” adds Dr Tang. “It can benefit us to think about all the things we might see in winter which are not easily found – or perhaps have less impact in summer; pretty lights; enjoying the new sounds, sights and smells of winter; and snuggling up in warm clothing.”
Seeing winter from a ‘glass half empty’ perspective doesn’t do anyone any favours. It’s time to consider what it does offer, savour the darkness, and reposition winter as the start of something new. When the dark skies cocoon us, appreciating their richness is a fascinating way to get active and socialise.
Winter doesn’t have to be about rest, recuperation and hibernation, unless you want it to be. The winter nights can sparkle with stars lighting up the universe, revealing glistening planets visible to the naked eye, such as Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Add a telescope into the mix and it’s possible to gaze deep into the galaxy. Rather than fight the darkness, appreciating its beauty can help maintain a positive attitude.
“Humans are biophilic,” says Dr Tang. “We are drawn to nature and research shows it can give our health a boost. Appreciation magnifies positive emotions which can energise us and blocks toxic, negative emotions. Appreciative people have a higher sense of self-worth.”
Reach for the stars
Exploring the universe can be life-affirming as it stops people from sweating the small stuff. Stargazing gets people outdoors into the fresh air embracing a new skill and hobby. It can be enjoyed solo, or involve new places and new faces. There’s potentially a mindful element to experiencing the night skies, too – being quiet, cocooned and contemplative.
Several nocturnal activities are available, both indoors and outdoors, to suit a variety of budgets and outlooks. For an enriching experience, venture to one of the UK’s official Dark Sky parks (darksky.org) for travel and enlightenment. All of the UK’s certified dark sky sites are unique and provide an exemplary view of the night sky. Not only do the certified sites have magnificent views of the stars above us, but they also provide outreach to engage and connect people with the night sky, and teach visitors how to be stewards of the night time environment. Visiting these areas is a privilege, as they are usually located in places of natural beauty where man’s artificial light hasn’t yet penetrated.
Dark Sky sites are a mixture of reserves, communities, parks and sanctuaries. Stunning examples of ‘communities’ include the Isle of Coll in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides, North Ronaldsay in the Orkney islands, and Sark in the Channel Islands. On the British mainland, Dark Sky parks and reserves include the Brecon Beacons, Elan Valley, Galloway Forest, the Yorkshire Dales, Snowdonia, Exmoor, Northumberland and the South Downs. Activities include wild camping, booking a Dark Sky Ranger, or simply taking a relaxed nocturnal stroll.
Dr Tang adds “Walking through a forest can have rejuvenating effects, as well as enabling some peace of mind and extra oxygenation of the brain. Simply looking at nature can help people heal faster than looking only at concrete or internal walls.”
Stargazing at home
Local forests and green spaces offer rich pickings too, especially for those who aren’t keen on straying too far afield. A homely option is stargazing in your garden or local park. This can be quieter and more relaxed as you’re in your own space. Or head to a location that matters to you – a beach, a stone circle, a place you feel free to safely contemplate the wonders of the universe. Stargazing may also teach us patience because we don’t always see what we want to see, but on any clear crisp night, amateur stargazers will be rewarded by calming sights they’ve never witnessed before.
To get started, a series of simple tips for stargazing beginners always helps. VisitScotland and Steve Owens, the astronomer at Glasgow Science Centre, have created a warmly educational series of short films to guide and inspire. Episode one explains what to look out for, from explaining what a star actually is, to the mind-blowing concept that when we stargaze we’re looking back in time. For example, the famous North Star is seven hundred light years away, so when you look at it, you’re actually seeing light that left that star seven hundred years ago. It can be desperately humbling and grounding to realise we are part of something so vast and timeless. Also keep an eye out for meteors, the Milky Way, and man-made creations such as satellites and the International Space Station.
If it’s all sounding a bit outdoorsy then a rainy day alternative is cosying up inside a planetarium. Like the cinema, an outing to a planetarium works for all ages, for groups or solo outings. Winchester Science Centre boasts a friendly and welcoming planetarium experience, where 360 screens surround the audience, placing visitors in the heart of the action as they fly through the Solar
System. Quiet shows are available for those who would prefer a hushed environment, and ‘relaxed’ shows welcome those with sensory sensitivities, featuring lights left on low, the sound turned down, freedom to move around or leave and re-enter the theatre as required. A captivating afternoon that’s out of this world.
For a more immediate stargazing experience visit one of the country’s many observatories. London’s Greenwich Observatory is home to the internationally recognised ‘Greenwich Mean Time’. Guests can actually stand on the Prime Meridian, the longitude that splits the Earth into the eastern and western hemisphere.
If the hustle and bustle of London doesn’t appeal, then it’s possible to discover far more intimate observatories dotted around the country. For example, the Stirling Highland Hotel is set in a former high school. Passers-by would never guess that the seemingly decorative green dome on the roof houses a 19th century observatory that’s home to an 1889 Newtonian reflector telescope. Originally under the auspices of the school’s Maths Master, today the observatory hosts tours by the Royal Astronomical Society available to hotel guests, local guides and children’s groups – a real hidden gem in an unexpected location.
Other famous observatories include Kielder Observatory in Northumberland, Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland, the Observatory Science Centre in East Sussex and Edinburgh’s Royal Observatory.
For a final fling of dark celebration, ideal for people who value shared experiences, consider the adventure of a dark skies festival. Several are planned for February 2022 in Cumbria, Northumberland, South Downs and the Yorkshire Dales with updates found at darkskiesnationalparks.org.uk. Looking further ahead, the Solarsphere Astronomical and Music Festival is scheduled for 19th-22nd August 2022. This independent, non-profit star camp is set in Penmaenau Farm, near Builth Wells in Wales. We’re talking experiences that bring all the festival vibes, but celebrate the darkness!
As winter beckons we can readily admit that it’s often dark and cold, but this year we can take back control. If everyone makes a concerted effort to plan and look forward to nocturnal activities, activities that light up our lives, and embrace the peaceful and mindful appeal of the stars and our universe, we’d potentially all shine a little brighter.
This article first appeared in issue 20 of Planet Mindful magazine. Want to live more mindfully? Check out more mindfulness techniques here.
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