The Depths of Winter: The Winter Blues in Graduate Students

A man walks along a snow covered road through an icy forest, past a snow and ice covered bridge. There is a loneliness to the photo representing the experience of the winter blues.

The Depths of Winter: The Winter Blues in Graduate Students

Here in the northern hemisphere, we are in the cold midwinter (if you’re in the southern hemisphere, bookmark this for later). The days have grown short, the darkness long, and the winter blues are upon us.

In the best of times, there is a graduate student mental health crisis.¹ For most, the depths of midwinter are not the best of times. Sleepiness, reduced productivity, irritability, sadness, loneliness, and worry are all more prevalent in winter. A study at a Northeastern university found that OVER HALF! of the college students surveyed had worsening mood symptoms in winter!²

While I can’t wave a wand and make the pressures and stressors of graduate school go away, I can give you 5 strategies to incorporate into your life to battle the winter blues. And, I can encourage you to seek help from your doctor, your student health center, or other mental healthcare provider if you’re finding yourself significantly distressed or your symptoms are substantially interfering with your daily functioning. If that’s happening, your symptoms are past the common winter blues and moving into the realm of illness. There are effective treatments out there, you don’t have to live with these symptoms.

Battling the Winter Blues

It can be difficult in the depths of midwinter to actively engage in the things most supportive of your mental health, but it’s important to avoid the self-reinforcing cycle of inactivity. You don’t have to be perfect at doing these activities. Do what you can, as often as you can. The goal isn’t to eliminate the urge to hibernate, but to lessen its strength. You want to tip the scale more in your favor to make it easier to get through the demands of winter.

5 Strategies to Nurture Your Graduate Student Spirit

Image of a German shepherd puppy cuddling with and licking a kitten. Symbolizes nurturing graduate student mental health

1) Prioritize Your Winter Wellness

It can seem like everyone and everything else needs to take priority in graduate school. Your advisor, your lab mates, your coursework, your research, your coauthors, etc. All of it can seem more important than supporting your mind and body. With no real deadline and delayed consequences, it’s easy to put off self-care activities. After all, what’s one more day?

But each day you put off supporting your well-being, especially in the dark of midwinter, you accumulate the costs. Day by day your debt grows, exponentially, until you are exhausted, weak, depressed, and overwhelmed. Ultimately, if you don’t support your body, your body will no longer support your mental health.

So, make it a priority to take care of your health:

  • Practice good sleep hygiene
  • Get at least four servings of fruits and vegetables a day
  • Get sunlight for 15 minutes a day to replenish your Vitamin D and if you live >36 degrees above the equator, talk to your doctor about a Vitamin D supplement
  • Get your heart rate up every day, even if it’s just for 10 minutes
  • Take stretch breaks while you’re working to support good blood flow
  • Schedule some quiet time each day to rest and refocus

2) Seek Joy

We live in an information age where news, both good and bad, is available at our fingertips 24 hours a day. If you want to support your mental health, carefully curate what information you consume and how you consume it to balance staying informed with nurturing your spirit.

Seek out positive experiences first thing in the morning. Instead of reading the news or (even worse) a comment section while you eat breakfast or on your way to the office, find uplifting ways to start your day. To beat the winter blues, be intentional in seeking positivity. Some suggestions:

  • Create a happy music playlist for getting ready in the morning
  • Instead of a candlelit dinner, try a candlelit breakfast
  • Subscribe to happy newsletters and read them before consuming any other news
  • Find an uplifting podcast to listen to on your commute

Above all, avoid exposure to toxic social media, set limits on your news consumption, and don’t start your day with information that makes you feel bad. If you find yourself being drawn to doom-scroll, some tools can help. I use the Leechblock internet browser add-on to block news sites before noon and limit the time I spend on them in a day. There’s a difference between staying informed and marinating in the negativity inherent in click-obsessed media.

3) Socialize Away the Winter Blues

The midwinter desire to hibernate can steal the motivation to get out and see friends. Especially for those in colder climates. But, now more than ever, it’s important to make socializing a priority. Getting out to see friends and family can help get you out of your head, remind you of good people, and battle the loneliness and isolation that can worsen your mood.

Now, I understand that this time of year can feel harried for many and this may feel like just one more burden on your mental health, so here are some low-key suggestions for socializing. Plan ahead to reduce the inertia of staying home, if you wait until you’re having a bad mental health day, you will be less likely to make healthy choices.

  • Schedule a mid-morning coffee/tea date with a friend. Set a limit on how long you plan to hang out to make it more manageable.
  • Join a penpal program (yes they still exist, just Google it!).
  • Have a movie night with a few close friends (in person is better but virtual will work too). Pick a season-appropriate movie, settle down with a hot beverage, and leave time at the end for socializing and discussion.
  • Host a potluck with a theme (e.g., pick an ingredient and have everyone make a dish using that ingredient).
  • Have a New Year’s resolution gathering where you and your friends set goals and cheer each other on.
  • Do a midwinter reading meeting. Who says that book clubs have to be a regular occurrence? There’s no rule saying you and some friends can’t get together just once to discuss a book.
  • Call a friend that you haven’t spoken to in a while and reconnect. They’ll be happy you reached out and were thinking about them.

4) Do Something for Someone Else

There’s a lot of evidence that doing something for someone else makes people feel good. But, people often make the mistake of thinking this has to be a big thing. Sometimes, small things can have a big impact on your winter blues. So, set a goal of doing a few small things a week to make someone’s day a little brighter. Here are some ideas:

  • Connect with a neighbor or acquaintance who seems vulnerable or lonely (if you can’t think of anyone you probably aren’t paying attention). Ask them how they are doing and tell them you were thinking about them and wanted to check-in.
  • Donate food or time to a food pantry.
  • Bake something for someone having a hard time and let them know they aren’t alone.
  • See if your local animal shelter has a walk-the-dog or socialize with the cats program and volunteer.
  • Get a bag of individually wrapped candy and secretly leave one on each of your colleagues’ desks.
  • Leave a treat for the cleaning crew, or delivery driver, or surprise a neighbor. If you want to make someone’s day, make them feel seen.

5) Mark the Passage of Time

On every world, wherever people are, in the deepest part of the winter, at the exact mid-point, everybody stops and turns and hugs. As if to say, “Well done. Well done, everyone! We’re halfway out of the dark.”

Kazran Sardick (played by Michael Gambon)
A Christmas Carol, Dr. Who, 2010
The dark of the shortest days can seem never-ending and with it our winter blues. There's a reason that people around the world celebrate the changing of the seasons and the passage of time. It reminds us that nothing is truly permanent and that we need to make the best of every moment, even the hard ones. So, take a nice-looking container (a jar, a pretty box, etc.), and at the end of each day, write down one thing you are grateful for or happy about and put it in the box. It can be big or small, sometimes the things that seem small were the hardest things of all. Then, watch as your appreciation grows day by day and reread your notes when you are feeling low.

So, with these 5 tips to make it through the darkest months, I leave you with one last, simple wish: May peace be yours this winter and throughout the coming year.

Wishing You the Best in Your Academic Success,

Dr. Cristie Glasheen, Your Graduate Student Success Coach.
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¹Bekkouche, N. S., Schmid, R. F., & Carliner, S. (2022). “Simmering pressure”: How systemic stress impacts graduate student mental health. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 34(4), 547-572.

²Rohan, K. J., & Sigmon, S. T. (2000). Seasonal mood patterns in a northeastern college sample. Journal of Affective Disorders, 59(2), 85-96.