How to look after your mental health during winter: tips from the Counseling Center

Bianca Ring, Opinions Editor

During winter, many students find themselves lacking motivation and energy. Whether it’s exhaustion, difficult classes, or just wishing that the sun wouldn’t set before 4 PM, there are lots of reasons that someone might have a hard time around this season. To most people, the cold weather and shorter days are a minor to moderate annoyance, but in more severe cases, this can manifest in Seasonal Affective Disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression that most often begins in fall or winter and subsides during the spring or summer. 

Scientists have found a number of possible factors that lead to Seasonal Affective Disorder, although its causes are not fully understood. Many people, especially those living further from the equator, experience disregulation of hormones like melatonin and serotonin during the winter. The National Institute of Mental Health states that overproduction of melatonin occurs due to the decrease in daylight hours, which throws off peoples’ sleep cycles and often results in excess tiredness. Serotonin, on the other hand, is a mood regulator affected by exposure to sunlight and levels of Vitamin D. With shortened daylight hours causing lowered Vitamin D levels, serotonin production can be stunted. When the effects of hormone disregulation begin impacting someone’s overall mood, feelings, or ability to complete daily tasks, they may be diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder.

I reached out to Union’s Counseling Center to ask for tips for people struggling with their mental health during winter. The Counseling Center responded with an amazing list of self care tips, advice, and possible solutions. Regardless of whether you’re experiencing a small setback or suffering from more severe symptoms, I highly suggest using some of the suggestions from the list below if you’re having a hard time managing winter term. 

  1. Students may wish to consult with a doctor to ensure they are getting enough vitamin D. Students can get a “happy lamp,” spend time outside or consult with their physician about vitamin supplements. 
  2. While it may be cold outside, getting fresh air and movement in your body is important year round, but especially in the winter when people tend to be less physically active. Physical activity helps with mood regulation and to release serotonin. 
  3. If you are having a hard time motivating yourself to get things done, creating a routine or schedule in which you allocate time to engage in a pleasant activity, then alternate with something that is required or an obligation, can help with initiating less desirable tasks. 
  4. Check in with your body mentally and physically. Students often do not get enough sleep and undervalue the importance and the impact sleep has on your overall well-being and functioning. Are you getting enough sleep, enough nutrients, enough water, enough social interaction, enough alone time, enough self care?

In addition to season-specific tips, the Counseling Center made a continued list of ways to improve your mental health year round. These tips are listed below. In addition, if you or someone you know is struggling, you can call the counseling center to schedule a triage appointment Monday-Friday from 1-4PM. Telehealth is also available to students through UWill. Students have unlimited free access to UWill services and can schedule as frequently as they wish. In an emergency, students can utilize walk-in hours M-F from 1-4 or if after hours, contact campus safety to speak with the counselor on call.

Talk to a friend about what is going on or find some support in another trusted source (i.e. family, office of religious and spiritual life, a mentor, a trusted faculty member).

Journal/free write. Don’t edit what you want to say, just allow yourself to write whatever is on your mind and then leave it on the page. You don’t need to reread your writing either – just use it as a way to allow the thoughts in your mind to move to the page instead of being jumbled up in your mind. 

Spend some time outdoors today. Spend time noticing nature and really allowing yourself to be absorbed in the colors, smells, and sounds.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation may also be helpful in relaxing as well as falling asleep. Just listen to this meditation script and follow along.

 Deep breathing: Put on some calming music, breathe in for 4 slow counts, hold your breath for 4 slow counts, breathe out for 4 slow counts, hold for 4 slow counts and repeat until you notice some calming in your body.

Spend some time writing down what you are grateful for. It doesn’t have to be a long list but really spend time thinking about all that you are grateful for. You could even end each day by identifying 3 things you are grateful for. Some days they may be as small as being grateful for the clothes on your back and that is ok. There is always something to be grateful for and shifting our perspective to take in the gratitude that is all around us can induce calm and possibly a sense of emotional wellbeing.

Spend some time with this list of things to be happy about and see what on the list speaks to you.

Maybe you need to distract yourself by going to class or a campus events meeting or maybe you need to give yourself a break and just relax in your bedroom and spend some time with Netflix. If you feel like you just need some time to yourself, then allow yourself to have that time and don’t feel guilty about it. You’re giving yourself the care you need and that’s what is most important.

Get off campus if you can. A change of scenery can sometimes be very helpful and refreshing.

If sleep is a problem, make sure you’re getting enough of it. 8 hours is the magic number to shoot for and improving your sleep can have a significant impact on your day-to-day wellbeing.

Meditate. If you have a formal meditation practice then make some time to integrate it into your day.  If not, check out the Stop, Breathe, Think app or Headspace app as easy ways to start meditating.

Make something. Do you like to cook? Bake? Knit? Scrapbook? Build? Make some time for your favorite hobby or pastime.

Take a break from social media. Whether it’s just for 10 minutes or 10 hours, give yourself permission to stop looking at people’s newsfeeds.

Read for fun. Reading can be an excellent way to get out of your head and bring about calm.

Mindful coloring. We have many free coloring options and some crayons too at the Wellness Center!

Exercise. Believe it or not, exercise can have a powerful effect on mood and emotional wellbeing. You don’t have to go as hard as you know how at the gym, just 20 minutes of gentle walking on the treadmill will do the trick. 

Eat well. Sugar and processed flours can actually have a powerful influence over our mood. See what happens if you cut down your sugar and white flour intake.