Conquering the “winter blues”


Winter can be arduous for plenty of people, particularly more than the other seasons — and it hits differently as a university student. 

The combination of the end of the holidays, shorter and colder days, along with the heavy snowfall may not be the best recipe for a study or work term. The “winter blues” describes these disheartening feelings and emotions generally associated with the season and can have a direct effect on our thoughts, studies, and activities.

As UW students, you may have different sentiments about the winter weather, depending on your own experience and history. If one is acclimated to the weather, your body and mind are prepped for the winter subconsciously, and any change in routine might go unnoticed. 

However, if one has moved from a country with more stable and warmer weather year-round, these cold winter months may resonate differently, and they may find it difficult to adjust quickly to the seasonal change. 

So whether you’re a seasoned winter enthusiast or someone who finds the colder months challenging, I hope to give insights into what might make winter ‘blue’ and support those looking to thaw the emotional chill associated with the season.

Student’s Perspective on the Winter 

At UW, we have more than 30,000 students from 120 countries. Many students move to Canada and experience their first snowfall in their first year of university, whereas many are already used to extreme weather changes. 

Shriya Kaistha, a third-year computer science student at UW, spoke about how her experience with the winter has changed since she first moved to Canada from India in 2021: “Winter, personally, has not been my favourite season, not even in India. Before coming here, I was told about how the sun would set earlier in the winter but that didn’t really bother me for my first winter here,” she said. 

“After experiencing the summer here in 2022, when the sun set at 9 p.m. and then transitioning to winter where the sun set at 4:30 p.m., everything became a little more odd. I started feeling the change in my mood and the difference in my light exposure throughout the day.”

Abhinav Jain, a fourth-year UW computer science student who moved to Waterloo from Ottawa, described his experience slightly differently: “I am a big fan of winter, especially when it snows a lot and doesn’t melt too quickly.”

Other UW students elaborated on their experience spending their study term or co-op term in the winter. 

Katie Iacono, a fourth-year biomedical student, found winter made it a lot harder for her to get to class. It was not just having to wear winter apparel before leaving the house, but trudging in the cold wind and the snow reduced her motivation to leave home. She mentioned that she always wanted to return home as soon as possible, so she spent less time on campus and ended up seeing her friends less often. She also recalled missing classes during previous winters due to the cold, but fortunately, this winter, that hasn’t happened as much. 

“I noticed that the switch from summer to winter does impact my mood, especially during a study term, where school is already overwhelming, I feel less inclined to go out and spend time with others during winter,” said Olive Lin, currently in the last term of her psychology degree. 

Shriya Kaistha described her experience with the winter while on a co-op term: “I take public transit to get to my office in Toronto. So I have to wake up really early in the morning to take the train and I have to walk in the snow when it’s cold and dark outside and I need to make sure I don’t slip anywhere as I am getting to work.” She added that in Toronto, you have to be careful and avoid running, as it could get very dangerous with all the slippery ice around. 

A Psychologist’s Perspective 

Jennifer Boyd, a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Waterloo, provided insight into these winter blues.

According to Boyd, one could look at “winter blues” as a casual diagnosis of the general lethargic and slumped feelings that are associated with the onset of winter. She reflected on her empirical observations of the people around her: 

“People feel a lot more lethargic during the winter, more tired and slowed down. There’s less light and it’s colder in the winter months which can definitely affect us on a psychological level,” she said. 

“It is important to keep in mind that sometimes, when it is colder and darker out, a lot of our activities change as well, which could have a really big impact on our mood. So trying to keep a regular routine of activities is important,” Boyd said. 

Boyd said there are many ways to combat these winter blues, but keeping a regular routine is one of the most impactful. This can mean a good sleep schedule and a daily activity routine, and leaving the house each day. 

As a fellow student, I recognise that being on a study term can mean that one has a different schedule than  a work term. The class schedule generated for us on Quest can sometimes be disheartening with a unique mix of 8:30 a.m. classes and evening classes that end at 9:30 p.m., making it harder to maintain or even set a routine in the winter. However, we can schedule our time in other ways:

  • Extracurriculars: Club meetings or events are generally conducted at a specific time each week and can be easy to add to one’s schedule around your classes. Going to the gym at the same time every day can help get your body into a routine. 
  • Leaving the house: Although this might be harder, try leaving the house around the same time each day, especially if you have to be on campus every day. This helps with scheduling breakfast time, which bus you have to catch and the time you take to get ready before you leave.
  • Exercise: It might be a lot harder to find motivation to head to the gym in winter attire, but making time for movement can be an important factor in our winter experience. 
  • Eating and sleeping: Our biological clock is an important factor in our daily routines. Boyd insists that despite the shorter days, making a point to sleep and wake up at the same time, and having meals at a regular time each day can help a lot with our routine and indirectly our mood as well. Stocking up on favourite foods and meal prep items early on ensures we have one less thing to worry about when it snows. 

Setting up these activities early on can help with settling into the winter weather routine. 

It’s also important to plan in advance. Sign up for events, deck out your schedule with reminders for upcoming dance tutorials, gym sessions, workshops, and meet-ups with friends early on in the winter so that when you’re feeling low in the future, your calendar of prior commitments motivates you to leave the house. Similarly, one could take advantage of the warmer fall to sign up for activities in the winter — like clubs and sports — so that you don’t have to make these decisions later when the winter has already arrived with its blues.”

Everyone is unique, and what works for one might not work for another, however, being more mindful of your activities and mood changes in the winter can help improve your experience with winter blues. 

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Boyd emphasized that the informal and more generalised use of the term “winter blues” should not be confused with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a serious diagnosis of a significant change in mood during seasons. 

“Seasonal affective disorder can be described by a pattern of mood changes that are associated with changes in the season,” she said. “It is commonly thought about as depression increasing during winter months since it is darker and colder; however, people can have these mood changes at other times of the year. It can be associated with spring or summer as well.” 

Norman E. Rosenthal first proposed the term “seasonal affective disorder” in 1984 after he noticed his change in motivation to work as he moved from sunny Africa to cloudy New York in the winter. Winter-onset SAD is characterised by feelings of isolation and depression during the winter months, especially for individuals in places that experience an extreme contrast in weather during the winter. 

A purely biological explanation for this phenomenon is light deficiency and the relationship between light, circadian rhythms, and serotonin levels. Rosenthal proposed that, due to the lack of light in winter, we experience a change in our body’s internal clock which leads to a drop in serotonin levels and feelings of depression. 

If you ever notice these symptoms in yourself or a friend, please know that there is always help available. As a psychology student, I encourage you to reach out to your family doctor, therapist, or psychologist if you ever find yourself with significant feelings of depression, lethargy, lack of focus or insomnia. One’s mental health is extremely important, and it can be difficult to work on with the fast pace of school and work. It’s okay to lean on your friends and family for support and please don’t forget to reach out to your loved ones to check in.

“Whether you have seasonal affective disorder or just ‘winter blues,’ you can always seek out support,” Boyd insists.