Mental Health Boosts to Keep You on Track in the Winter

Mental Health Boosts

Benjavisa Ruangvaree /

It’s normal to feel down when the days are grey, the temperature hovers at or below freezing, and the forecast is bleak (six more weeks of winter, anyone?). It doesn’t help that sunset seems to happen at dinnertime, sunrise doesn’t seem to happen until lunchtime, and all of your daylight hours are spent in class. Despite the darkness and the cold, there are plenty of ways to cheer yourself up and not spiral into winter depression. (If you’re worried about seasonal affective disorder, this blog post can give you more information.) Your mental health is important and your emotional well-being should be a priority. Use these tips when you need a boost.

Cook a healthy meal for a friend. Skip the dining hall for a night and take the time to prepare a nourishing dinner. Not only is food the way to many a persons’ hearts, you’ll also get to enjoy some mental downtime. Instead of focusing on the work you need to do later or stressing about an upcoming test, pay attention to chopping vegetables, measuring spices, and sharing a meal with someone else. By cooking for a friend, you’re performing an altruistic act (see “Volunteer” below), but you’re also getting something back in return: gratitude and praise, which lead to confidence. Sharing a meal, too, gives you time to get to know another person better, creating and strengthening friendship.

Eat foods that will bring you up, not bring you down. Yes, Cheetos are delicious, and it’s always hard to pass up a donut, but moving away from the junk food and toward fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and foods that are high in fiber is going to boost your mental clarity. Not only that, but your body will thank you too. Eating junk food can spike your energy for a few minutes, but then you’ll experience a hard fall. Foods that sustain you all day long are going to help you complete tasks, stay present, and generally feel better. Try snacking on one of these foods if you hit a lull.

Volunteer. Take some time out of your day to do something that helps others or the community. Studies have shown that volunteering can actually boost mental health so much that it offsets feelings of stress, and it’s positively associated with physical health too. (This study found that adult volunteers were less likely to develop high blood pressure than those who didn’t volunteer or volunteered at lower levels.) The type of volunteering doesn’t seem to matter too much, so if you want to read to children at the local library, have at it! If you’d rather avoid people and spend your time taking shelter dogs on walks, that’s a good bet too.

Meditate or practice mindfulness. Mindfulness, as defined in this article, is “the ability to cultivate a focused, non-judgemental awareness on the present moment,” and it’s touted as a treatment for depression, anxiety, and a number of other mental illnesses. When you meditate and when you practice mindfulness, you are shutting out all thoughts that aren’t relevant to the current moment. When your thoughts inevitably wander, you bring your attention back to the present. These practices can help when your mind wanders to things you don’t want to think about or when you feel anxious about the future or a past event. If you feel overloaded, spending some time in a quiet room paying attention only to the present is sure to help you relax.

Set attainable goals. It’s not hard to stress yourself out. Personally, I am a master of making lists of tasks that I couldn’t possibly get done in a reasonable time frame. (“Finish War and Peace has been on my to-do list for months.) By setting yourself goals that you can actually get done, you get to feel the associated sense of accomplishment much more often. I’m not saying you should add menial tasks like “shower” and “eat breakfast” to your to-do list (though we’ve all had a day where showering feels monumental), but break down your large assignments into chunks. “Complete research paper” could become “Write introduction, find three sources, and complete a rough draft.” Not everything needs to be so large that it seems impossible.

  • When you complete a goal, no matter how small, let yourself celebrate! Jumping from task to task without acknowledging your accomplishments isn’t going to make you feel better. Buy yourself a hot chocolate or reward yourself with a chapter of your “for fun” book.

Take a break. No one can go all day, every day without eventually experiencing burnout. If your brain is tired or your focus just isn’t there, give yourself a time limit and take a break. Don’t force yourself to continue on when your head isn’t in the game anymore. Whether you go on a walk, take a power nap, or fill in a coloring book, let your mind wander away from wherever it’s stuck.

Take care of your body. A happy body is a happy mind. Not only should you eat nutritious, energy-boosting foods, you should also take care of your body in other ways: Namely, get enough physical exercise. As a student, it’s easy to get stuck in the library for long periods of time and forget to move. Being stagnant all day, though, has tons of associated health risks, from obesity to high cholesterol to heart disease. You don’t need to run miles and miles each day, but breaking up the periods of time when you’re doing nothing but sitting with a walk or a game of pick-up Frisbee is going to help in the long run. Plus, you’ll get to take a break from whatever you’re working on and you can start with a clear head after an “exercise” break.

Plan something fun for the near future. People are generally happier when they have something to look forward to, so take a look at your calendar and start planning. No, you don’t need to wipe out your life savings for a two week trip to Europe. Instead, try planning a weekend getaway with your best friend, finding upcoming concerts or plays in the area, or planning a picnic. No matter how grand your plans are, having something fun on the horizon is going to keep your head happy.

Spend time with your friends. This one is easy. If you’re feeling down in the dumps, tired, stressed, or any other negative emotion, call up a friend. Grab coffee, take a walk, sit on the quad and just chat...whatever you do is up to you. You’re only going to benefit from spending time with someone.

Take a timeout from your phone. The convenience of a cell phone is incredible, but there is a downside to being so available and so connected all the time (not to mention it makes it easier for cyberbullies to do their thing). Unless you are a world leader, there’s no reason for you to be accessible 24/7, and you’re missing out on other experiences by keeping your eyes on your screen at all times. It’s exhausting to respond to emails and texts as soon as you get them, to post to Twitter every hour, to check Instagram every time you have a moment, and be so on all the time. Take an hour every night or a few hours each weekend to completely unplug. You’ll enjoy the freedom and you’ll give yourself a break. Imagine all the time you’ll have to do things you actually enjoy!

Take a walk. Let yourself leave the classroom or the library and get outside. Not only is the outdoors a great place to get your daily dose of vitamin D, getting outside gets you access to fresh air and nature. Getting outside gets you moving and gets you thinking about something other than your homework. Plus, natural light is essential to your well-being, and you’re certainly not getting it when you sit beneath the fluorescent lights in the classroom.

Journal. You may have something eating you up inside that you don’t want to physically talk to anyone about, and that’s okay. You don’t have to talk to someone, but keeping it inside all to yourself is a recipe for disaster. Instead of bottling it up, write it down. Let your fears, anxieties, and problems out on paper. If you don’t know what’s got you frazzled, writing for a few minutes each day can help you pinpoint the cause of your feelings and work toward a solution. Even if nothing’s wrong, journaling can help you better understand your surroundings and yourself. Give it a shot!

Your mental health is just as important as your physical health, so pay attention when you feel off! These tips can (and maybe should) become habits. With just a few changes to your daily routine, you may find that you’re happier, more energized, and ready to tackle each day.

About Megan Clendenon

Megan C. is obsessed with Cincinnati-style chili, Louisville basketball, and Scandinavian crime fiction. She has lived in six different states and held 12 different jobs since beginning her undergraduate degree at Carleton College in 2008. The wanderlust abated somewhat in recent years, as Megan settled in Texas from 2013 to 2016 to finish a master’s degree in geosciences, write a thesis on the future horrors that stem from climate change, and get married. During her free time, you will find Megan sitting on the couch, cheering for her Louisville Cardinals, planning future adventures abroad, and snuggling with her dog, Tiger. She currently lives outside of Washington D.C.

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