Disclaimer: The information in this article is from first-person interviews and online resources and is not intended to substitute the advice of a mental health professional. If you believe you are experiencing signs of depression, please seek the help of a licensed mental health professional.
What Are the Winter Blues?
The holidays in college are filled with festive parties, baked goods, and the highly anticipated winter break. Once students return to campus, however, they may struggle to settle back into heavy class loads with months of winter left ahead of them.
Around this time of year, students may begin experiencing the "winter blues." Early sunsets, dreary skies, and cold weather can make students feel particularly sluggish, tired, and unmotivated.
Since students are often away from the comfort of their homes, college can enhance the winter blues. Below we provide information on the differences between seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and the winter blues, as well as some tips for staying motivated and happy throughout the remaining winter months.
What Is Seasonal Depression?
People can experience SAD year-round, but it is most common during the winter months with limited sunlight and shorter days. While the winter blues may cause a slight mood change, SAD has a greater impact on the individual.
Rush University Medical Center explains the difference between the winter blues and SAD: "Although you may feel more gloomy than usual, the winter blues typically don't hinder your ability to enjoy life. But if your winter blues start permeating all aspects of your life — from work to relationships — you may be facing SAD."
While the signs of winter blues include low motivation, a lessened desire to be social, and difficulty sleeping, the symptoms of SAD are often more extreme. According to Rush, SAD symptoms can include isolation from friends and family, low performance at work or home, and suicidal thoughts. If you are exhibiting these signs, seek help to find a treatment that works for you.
How to Survive Winter and Beat the Winter Blues
Beating the winter blues can be challenging. Below, we've provided tips that can help ease the gloom of the winter months. Staying motivated and keeping up with your daily routine, exercise, and social activities are all covered below.
Additionally, taking up a new hobby in January may help, such as trying meditation or making a dietary change. Your campus may also have mental health resources — almost all colleges offer access to therapists or counselors.
Some colleges have on-campus light therapy; Cornell University, for example, offers a light therapy box in their Counseling Center. Keep an eye out for campus activities and social events as well.
Tips for Beating the Winter Blues
Go Outside and Get in Touch With Nature
It can be tempting to look out your dorm window at the snow and crawl under your covers, but getting outside can actually help reduce symptoms of fatigue. The fresh air and cool wind can help stimulate your senses and actually improve your energy levels.
Increased energy is only one of the many benefits of being outdoors. Scientific studies now prove that individuals are less stressed when spending time outdoors. A study of healthy adults published in Public Health shows that even a short walk in nature can decrease depression and greatly increase mood.
Writing for UC Berkeley's Greater Good Magazine, Jill Suttie, Psy.D., notes that, "Scientists are beginning to find evidence that being in nature has a profound impact on our brains and our behavior, helping us to reduce anxiety, brooding, and stress, and increase our attention capacity, creativity, and our ability to connect with other people."
Instead of looking outside at the gray skies behind your curtains, pull on a coat, hat, and some gloves, and head outside for a short, 15-minute walk. While walking, try to appreciate the nature around you and pay attention to your breathing; you might be surprised by how quickly your mood improves.
Get Enough Exercise — At Least 20 Minutes a Day
While exercising outside is ideal, it's more important to get moving in general. As Healthline reports, "It seems that your mood can benefit from exercise no matter the intensity of the physical activity." A quick walk or run outside can help improve your mood, but if you can't bear to go outside, then taking a studio class or even doing a workout in your room can help.
Allina Health also speaks to the benefits of exercise: "Exercise releases endorphins, which are hormones that reduce pain and increase feelings of well-being. In addition, exercise increases your metabolism, which helps improve your energy levels. Plus, the fatigue from well-used muscles is a healthier type of fatigue than that of depression."
Harvard Medical School also states that, "Regular exercise can also help you sleep better, reduce stress, control your weight, [and] brighten your mood," among other benefits. Taking even 30 minutes out of your day can help ease the effects of winter weather and short days.
Consider Light Therapy Lamps
Light therapy is frequently hailed as one of the best ways to beat the winter blues. Particularly for people living in higher latitudes, short winter days and long nights can cause a lack of Vitamin D and affect an individual's circadian rhythm, leading to low energy levels and difficulty sleeping.
In "Winter Blues Survival Guide," Norman E. Rosenthal, MD, and Christine M. Benton address how light therapy can help with winter blues and SAD symptoms. "The principle behind light therapy is glaringly simple: this treatment replaces the missing light that is causing your SAD. The most effective, most reliable way to get light therapy is by using a light fixture designed for this purpose, although you can also try exposing yourself to as much outdoor daylight as possible and brightening your indoor environment."
In an interview with BestColleges, Jessica A. Gold, MD, also recommended using light therapy, stating, "The standard and best studied devices are 10,000 lux light boxes that use fluorescent bulbs emitting white light. You use them in the early morning, soon after awakening and should administer light therapy at approximately the same time each day, including weekends, holidays, and vacations."
As far as length of therapy, Gold comments, "the duration of early morning exposure to standard light boxes emit 10,000 lux is generally 30 minutes/day, but some studies have used 45 or 60 minutes per session." If you struggle with the winter blues consider getting a small, portable light box for your dorm room and using it while you get ready for class.
Make 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 in the morning. Long classes during the week combined with homework, projects, and a job can make sleep less of a priority for college students. Having a normal schedule can be even more challenging during the winter when dark mornings and cold weather can make you want to pull your covers over your head and hibernate.
As hard as it may seem, setting a normal sleep schedule can actually help with the winter blues. Writing for Everyday Health, Madeline R. Vann, MPH, says that, "Tempting as it might be to sleep in on dark mornings, it's best to stick with a regular sleep schedule — which means waking up at the same times on weekdays and weekends." Setting your morning alarm for a reasonable hour and even setting a night-time alarm to remind you when it's time for bed can help you set a regular sleep schedule despite the early sunsets.
Creating a good environment for sleep is just as important as the amount of sleep. Gold advises, "Sleep hygiene is really important. Keep a regular sleep schedule and do not try to sleep unless you are sleepy." She also recommends, "Avoiding 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." Setting your dorm room to a comfortable temperature and closing your blinds can help you get the quality sleep you need so you can wake up well rested.
Make Plans With Friends and Family
As a college student, partaking in social events can help ease the winter blues. Heading to Saturday morning brunch, campus events, or even going to the movies with your roommate are easy ways to get out of your dorm or apartment and engage with others.
In "Beating Winter Blues," Winston J. Craig states, "High levels of social support can cushion the effects of depression. Having the support and friendship of others with SAD may be beneficial since they can share devices and strategies they have found helpful." Connecting with a new classmate or taking time to call home can offer fruitful engagements as well.
Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D., also recommends social support in "How to Beat Winter Blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder." Hosting a casual party in your dorm room or even inviting friends over if you really don't feel like heading out into the cold can make a difference on your mood. Hendriksen writes, "Social support is one of the best buffers to all kinds of mood problems, but I know, I know — when you have the winter blahs, the last thing you feel like doing is hanging out. If nothing else, throw a Winter Doldrums party, wear your best Snuggie, and make your friends come to you."