How to Beat the Winter Blues in College

portrait of Veronica Freeman
by Veronica Freeman
Published on November 8, 2021
Reviewed by Rayelle Davis, M.Ed., LCPC, NCC

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How to Beat the Winter Blues in College


The winter season is often filled with festive parties, baked goods, and for college students the highly anticipated winter break. Once students return to campus, however, they may struggle to settle back in to heavy class loads, especially with months of winter still ahead.

Around this chilly time of year, many college students experience something called the "winter blues." Since students are often away from the comfort of their homes and families, college can enhance feelings of sadness and loneliness.

So what can you do to beat the winter blues and feel better about yourself? And how does the winter blues differ from seasonal depression?

What Is the Winter Blues?

The winter blues is a term used to describe feelings of sadness, isolation, and general unhappiness during the fall and winter months, when the days become shorter and colder.

According to Dr. Matthew Rudorfer, a mental health specialist at the National Institutes of Health, "Winter blues is … not a medical diagnosis. It's fairly common, and it's more mild than serious. It usually clears up on its own in a fairly short amount of time."

Early sunsets, dreary skies, and cold weather can make college students feel sluggish, tired, and unmotivated. Many students feel a sense of sadness or emptiness upon returning to campus after the holiday season.

What Is Seasonal Depression?

Like the winter blues, seasonal depression — also known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD for short — generally occurs during the winter months when there's less sunlight and days are shorter.

But whereas the winter blues may cause just slight mood changes, SAD has a far greater impact on the individual.

"[SAD is] a well-defined clinical diagnosis that's related to the shortening of daylight hours," explained Rudorfer. "It interferes with daily functioning over a significant period of time."

While the signs of the winter blues include low motivation, a lower desire to socialize, and difficulty sleeping, the symptoms of SAD are often more extreme. These may include isolation from friends and family, low performance at school or work, and even suicidal thoughts.

5 Tips for Beating the Winter Blues in College

Beating the winter blues can be challenging. Below, we provide tips that can help ease the gloom of the winter months for college students. Staying motivated and keeping up with your daily routine, exercise, and social activities are all key to overcoming the winter blues.

1. Go Outside and Get in Touch With Nature

Getting outside can dramatically reduce winter blues symptoms, particularly fatigue. Fresh air and cool wind can stimulate your senses and raise your energy levels.

Increased energy is just one of the many benefits of getting out of the house. Studies show that individuals feel less stressed when spending time outdoors.

So instead of looking outside at the gray skies, put on a coat, a hat, and some gloves and head outside for a brisk 15-minute walk. As you move, try to appreciate the nature around you and bring attention to your breathing — you might be surprised by how quickly your mood improves.

2. Exercise Regularly

While exercising outdoors is ideal, it's more important that you get moving in general. A quick walk or run outside can boost your mood, but if you can't get out, taking a studio class or doing a workout in your room can help, too.

Exercise releases endorphins — hormones that reduce pain and improve your mood. Students might consider yoga, swimming, running, power walking, and strength training. It can also be more motivating to work out with a friend or group of friends.

3. Consider Light Therapy Lamps

Light therapy is frequently hailed as one of the best ways to beat the winter blues. Particularly for people living at higher latitudes, short winter days and long bouts of darkness can contribute to a lack of vitamin D and affect your circadian rhythm, resulting in low energy levels and difficulty sleeping.

With light therapy, patients sit in front of a special lamp for a specific amount of time, usually at least 30 minutes, each day. Research indicates that up to 7 in 10 patients will notice a reduction in their SAD and winter blues symptoms after starting light therapy.

"The standard and best studied [light therapy] devices are 10,000 lux light boxes that use fluorescent bulbs emitting white light," said Jessica A. Gold, MD, MS. "You use them in the early morning, soon after awakening, and should administer light therapy at approximately the same time each day, including on weekends, holidays, and vacations."

If you think you may have the winter blues, consider getting a small, portable light box for your room and using it while you get ready for class each morning.

4. Create a Sleep Schedule and Stick to It

Waking up on time and keeping a regular schedule may be the last thing you want to do when your alarm goes off each morning. Long classes during the week, combined with homework, projects, and a part-time job, can make sleep a low priority for many college students.

Maintaining a healthy sleep schedule can be even more challenging in the winter months when cold, dark mornings often tempt students to enter hibernation.

"Sleep hygiene is really important," stressed Gold. "Keep a regular sleep schedule and do not try to sleep unless you are sleepy."

As hard as it may seem, establishing a regular sleep schedule can help you beat the winter blues. In addition to setting a morning alarm, you might consider setting a night alarm to remind you when it's time for bed.

And try not to eat right before bed either. "Avoid caffeine after lunch and alcohol near bedtime. Don't go to bed hungry, make the bedroom conducive to sleep, and avoid screen time before bed," advised Gold.

5. Make Plans With Friends and Family

Socializing with peers, friends, and family can help college students overcome the winter blues. For example, you might consider getting brunch with a friend, joining a student club, or seeing a movie with your roommate.

Other options include hosting a casual party at your place and inviting friends and classmates over for movies and games. Even just calling home, especially if you're feeling homesick after the holiday season, can help combat winter blues symptoms.


The information provided on this website is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment; instead, all information, content, and materials available on this site are for general informational purposes only. Readers of this website should consult with their physician to obtain advice with respect to any medical condition or treatment.


Feature Image: martin-dm / E+ / Getty Images

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