When it’s more than just the “Winter Blues”

While some of us are in a winter wonderland this time of year, many people are not excited about the cold, slushy winter weather. It’s normal to feel a little gloomy when the weather is bitter, but for some people, the winter gloom is a depression that can have a serious impact on wellbeing.

Seasonal affective disorder, also called seasonal depression, is a type of depression that changes with the seasons, with symptoms usually appearing around the shift from fall to winter and disappearing over the warmer months of the year. As a result, winter feels like a dreadful season, plagued with feelings of hopelessness, depression, irritability, and low energy.

For college students, seasonal depression may interfere with school and work performance. With spring semester beginning mid-winter, this can be a huge problem for some students! Even those who do not experience seasonal depression may have mood changes and may be more irritable during the winter. It’s difficult to feel excited about classes when you have to trek through inches of snow to get to them!

If you know that you tend to experience seasonal depression or mood changes in winter, there are a few things you can try that may help alleviate the symptoms.

  1. Plan ahead of time – this year, up your self-care starting in fall. Get into a regular and adequate sleep schedule, exercise daily, and eat healthy to keep your body happy and give yourself a mental boost.
  2. Use bright light! 10,000 lux broad-spectrum lights can improve seasonal depression. This works because it mimics sunlight, which is reduced in the fall and winter. Since light has been shown to be helpful for many people with seasonal depression, special light therapy boxes are available to buy online (expect to spend around $50-$100). Keep your curtains open to let in as much natural light as possible, too.
  3. Stay connected with your friends and family. It’s easy to isolate yourself, especially during the winter season. Try to spend lots of time with loved ones who help you feel happy and loved. Doing fun outdoor winter activities with friends and family can expose you to more sunlight, too!
  4. Make an appointment with your doctor or a mental health professional, as therapy and antidepressant medication are other options that can help treat seasonal depression. Don’t be afraid to come to Counseling Services for help!

Avoid telling yourself that seasonal depression is just a case of the “winter blues.” Depression is a serious illness that you shouldn’t have to tolerate. Winter can be gloomy, but with help, it doesn’t have to feel hopeless.


Classes are done, finals are complete, time for break!  It sounds great – nearly a month without sitting through classes, stressing over homework, trying to juggle school with work, friends, life.  But each break between semesters seems to bring challenges for many students.


While all that down time sounds fantastic, it quickly becomes a double-edged sword.  Students often find that by the end of a long break, like winter break or even summer break, they feel worse than when it began.  And this issue probably affects more students that we realize … because who wants to complain about time off?


So why do long breaks have the opposite effect from what we expect?  There are several possible reasons.


First, you spend an entire semester, 16ish weeks, building a level of activity and stress then suddenly it’s just over.  After your last final, there is a near absence of stuff to stress about in most cases.  It’s a sudden drop in anticipation, worry, and stress levels, which equates to sudden shifts in stress hormones in the body and sudden changes in brain chemistry.  All of that sometimes leaves you feeling like a balloon someone has just let the air out of.  Taking a break is fantastic after all of that work and stress – in fact, it is absolutely necessary.  However, after about 2 days of this, you start to notice the lack of activity and stress to which you’ve become accustomed.


Second, what we do with our down time can have a huge impact on our mood and day-to-day behavior.  If you go into break with no plan, or a plan to do a whole bunch of nothing, you may run into problems.  When we’re bored, there are a handful of passive activities we easily turn to.


Often, we think – and think, and think, and think.  And for many people, too much time stuck in your own head with your thoughts often takes a downward turn.  We start to analyze all of our flaws, the things that are wrong with our lives, what we should’ve done differently on those exams, how our lives aren’t where / what we want them to be by now, and on it goes.  We fairly quickly notice a downward shift in our mood from doing “ok” to feeling, “blah,” to sad, and sometimes all the way to depressed.  Not good.


Another frequent passive activity is hanging out on the couch scrolling through social media pages.  We see all the amazing things others are doing, the fun times they’re having, the accomplishments they’ve achieved, and we begin to feel bad about ourselves.


Closely related to the social media binge is the streaming video binge.  Whether your site of choice is YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, or another, it’s so easy to get hooked on a story line and realize you’ve just spent the last 7 hours sitting on the couch, eating chips, and watching TV (or the laptop).  This leaves you feeling physically stiff, mentally fatigued, and low on energy.  This is definitely not restorative down time.


If you’ve had a major stressor in your personal life during the semester, sometimes those are put on the back burner and not really dealt with because we’re so busy with school.  These can catch up with you during break.  Be prepared to bring out your best coping skills and use them so you’re not ambushed by this.  Also, if you’ve lost a loved-one any time in the last year or 18 months, the break (with the lack of things to keep you busy and big holidays) can be a very difficult time.  Knowing this in advance can sometimes buffer the impact we feel when those emotions and memories creep up on us.


Finally, a sometimes-unexpected fact can make winter break less enjoyable:  changing relationships with family.  As you go through college, you move from being a “kid” – a teenager under full parental supervision – to being an adult, but it doesn’t happen overnight.  It’s a process and it doesn’t always happen smoothly.  You may encounter more power struggles about curfews, house rules, and developing your own independence.  This can be even more pronounced if you’re the first person in your family to go to college because you may feel that your parents just don’t understand what’s going on in your life now (and your parents may feel the same way).  These changing relationships are normal and if you keep that in mind, it may make the process a bit easier.


So what can you do to avoid this month-long downward spiral?  Here are some tips:


  1. Social media gets everyone’s “good” side.

When people post to social media, they usually post the best parts of their lives – fun times with good friends, pics that are most flattering, and the most brag-worthy achievements.  It’s much less common for people to post failures, pics from first thing in the morning before they’ve brushed their hair or teeth, or boring nights sitting alone at home with nothing to do.  Keep that in mind as your browse.  Avoid the temptation to compare everyone else’s “A side” to your “B side.”


  1. Make a plan.

As you’re wrapping up the semester & exams, think about what you’d like to do over break.  Allow yourself some free time (a good Netflix binge is ok once in a while – just not for a whole month), but also plan some active time.  Check in with friends ahead of time to see when they’ll be around so you can plan something.  Get out of the house!  Go to the movies, out to dinner, walk the mall, anything that gets you up & out the door.


  1. Spend time with people.

It’s important that you not spend the entire (or even most of the) break alone in your room or apartment.  Find some people to be around – spend time with family, reconnect with friends you don’t have a chance to see during the regular semester, find a way to make some new friends.


  1. Get active.

If the weather allows it, outside time is great.  Some sunlight, especially in the winter, can do wonders for your mood.  Be sure to keep up with whatever your regular routine of exercise has been, or use this time to create one if you haven’t been active.  Moderate-intensity exercise improves mood, improves your thinking, decision making, and memory, and helps you sleep better.  Workout with friends – bonus points for social interaction & exercise at the same time!


  1. If you’re really struggling, ask for help.

Sometimes the break, the holidays, the time alone can be extra difficult.  If you’re dealing with an anxiety disorder, clinical depression, or grieving the loss of loved ones, the break may be even worse.  If you’ve tried making a plan and getting out of the house and it’s just not helping; if your mood or anxiety are getting worse or you’re feeling desperate or even suicidal, it’s time to ask for help.  You don’t have to be miserable.  It is ok to ask for help.  Talk to someone – your parents, a trusted friend, a therapist.  There are several national hotlines you can call, or even text, to talk with someone 24 hours a day.  Here are some:

Crisis Text Line:  Text 741-741 any time and a live, trained crisis counselor will text you back.

IMALIVE Online Crisis Chat:  https://www.imalive.org/

National Suicide Hotline:  1-800-273-8255


Winter break is a great time to recoup from the busy semester; however, without a plan to make use of your time, you’ll find yourself wondering where the time went, and may end up feeling more down than before the break began.  Stay active, get engaged with other people, and have a great break!!



7 Last-Minute Tips for Nailing Finals

It’s almost time for final exams.  Stress runs high, sleep runs short, and note cards are everywhere!  Here are some last-minute tips to help you through:


  1.  Take it one exam at a time.

If you have several exams to prep for, consider how much effort you need to give each one.  You will find that some classes / subjects come easier to you than others.  Or some final exams just don’t require as much of your energy to score well.  However, you will also find that some require as much attention as you can give them.  Make a plan for how much time you should be spending on each, then approach them one subject at a time, beginning with the exam that comes first.  Once you’re ready (or that exam is done), you can then move on to the next subject.

  1.  Find a partner.

If you work with another student to study for exams, and you can stay focused on the material, there can be a lot of benefit.  Talk about the material that confuses you, quiz each other, or better yet, find someone who doesn’t know the material and teach it to him/her.  If you can explain, in your own words, what the material is about so that someone who hasn’t had the class can understand it, you’re in good shape.

  1.  Sleep.

You must.  Sleep is necessary for long-term memory formation and accurate recall.  Not getting enough sleep will make it harder to focus on what you’re studying, take longer to get the material into memory, and mean that the information will be less accurate when you recall it from memory later.  On top of that, it will increase your stress level, your frustration level, and your cravings for high-sugar / high-carb / high-fat foods.

  1.  Take breaks.

Yes, I said it.  You cannot study non-stop, even for final exams.  After about an hour, your attention starts to wander and you won’t retain much of the information you’re trying to study anyway.  Take a break, get up, move around, check out what’s going on online, have a snack, and then go back to it.  Set a timer to remind you if necessary.

  1.  Turn off distractions.

That being said, when it’s study time, it’s study time.  Turn off the phone, shut down the browser windows with social media sites that call your attention, turn off the TV, and get rid of anything that distracts you.  Use an app to lock down the phone for a specified period of time, or a program that restricts the websites you visit on your computer during certain time frames if you need the extra help.  Also, know yourself … if music or some type of background noise actually helps you focus better, you should leave those on; however, if it’s distracting – get rid of it!

  1.  Get rid of worry.

Worry is not your friend.  Most of us know that worrying by itself will not change the outcome of a test or class grade.  Worrying about which questions will be on the exam or what material to spend the most time on will not change the content of the exam.  But we still do it – mostly because it feels like we have some control over the situation, when really, we don’t.  So use the energy you would’ve spent on worry to focus on things that will improve your outcomes – ask your instructor about what material to focus on or which specific topics will be on the exam.  Pay attention and when you notice yourself beginning to worry or get stressed about something, take a step back and ask:  “Is there anything I can actually do about that?” (Like asking for more information, spending some more time studying, asking for help from a tutor) – if there’s nothing your can do, set it aside.  Remind yourself that worry only uses up time & energy better spent actually studying.  If there is something you can do, do it.  In the end, worry and stress will only interfere with your ability to understand and retain information.

  1.  Take care of yourself.

It is important to sleep, take breaks, and tell worry to take a hike.  But taking care of yourself extends to other areas as well.  Eat well – be sure you’re including enough healthy protein and veggies, while limiting the amount of processed sugars and bad fats; and be sure to include healthy fats like fish, olive oil, avocado, and others.  Stay active and get some exercise.  It can be hard to convince yourself to exercise when you’re tired and stressed from school and / or work, especially if you have so much more to do.  But it’s important and in the long run will improve your mood, increase circulation (including to your brain, which will improve overall cognitive performance), and help you feel better physically.  It’s worth it.