When you go to college in New England, calling the term that begins in mid-January “spring semester” is at least misleading and at most unfair.
Let’s face it, spring semester starts in the middle of the cold, dark, and snowy winter. Students return to on campus wearing heavy coats and boots, hoping that they won’t get coated in slushy mess from a passing car if they happen to walk next to a road.
During this time of year I often meet with students who struggle to get to early morning classes because it’s much nicer to stay in a warm bed. Out-of-state students in particular tell me that the lack of sunshine and warmth makes it hard for them to stay focused on their work. I definitely see an uptick in the number of students who are feeling down during January and February.
If I didn’t already know that the winter blues was a real thing, I’d be convinced of it by now. A Google search of the term brings up more than 600 million results. The National Institutes of Health reports that the winter blues are often related to the letdown people experience when the holiday season ends.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), on the other hand, is more serious and is related to the lack of sunshine and daylight we experience during winter months, especially in northern parts of the U.S. SAD may clear up as we experience longer daylight hours, but while it has its hold on people, they often lose interest in normal activities, suffer from lower energy levels, and start to feel hopeless and irritable.
For college students the timing couldn’t be worse. A typical semester is 13 weeks long and in the spring the first half takes place during the darker months. Students who suffer from some degree of SAD can find themselves behind in their classes as spring break rolls around. When they return from their week off, it’s not uncommon for students to lose their motivation to finish the semester.
Of course, it’s not just students who experience this slump. The NIH reports that up to 10 percent of people may suffer from seasonal affective disorder. I have been known to get cranky in the winter. My kids know things are challenging when I start to look for summer vacation rentals in February and when I start cursing the month of March.
Seriously, March is such a fitting name for this month. It always feels like a forced slog through 31 unpredictable days of weather. Will it snow again? Will it be 60 degrees today and -3 tomorrow? Will I walk outside to find the snow melt of yesterday is a sheet of ice this morning? Ugh. March.
So yes, staying motivated can be a challenge. Luckily, it’s not difficult to find suggestions to help folks get back on track as the days start to get longer.
Getting regular physical exercise tops all the lists of ways to improve a blue mood. Exercise releases endorphins, which in turn helps us feel happier. Exercising in a brightly lit space or outside can be even more helpful.
Eating healthy foods and cutting back on simple carbohydrates can keep the body’s blood sugar stable, which may also keep moods from sinking further. Other suggestions include meditating or using a light box to simulate natural sunlight. For people who can’t shake the feelings of sadness, it may help to seek therapy.
For college students, it can be harder to bounce back in March when the end of the semester is looming. Some of the tips I suggest to my students include finding an “accountability buddy” — I recommend they enlist a friend and tell them what they are working on so the friend can encourage them to stay on track. It helps if this is a mutual arrangement.
Finding ways to break large projects into smaller chunks and focusing on one thing at a time can make big assignments feel more doable. I suggest that students build in breaks and incentives — to treat themselves with a walk, a fancy coffee, or a few minutes scrolling through Instagram once they’ve accomplished a goal. The pull of social media is something my students describe as a time waster and distraction, so we talk about ways to limit access when it’s time to buckle down and work.
Creating and sticking to a routine helps. Each semester, I ask my students to fill out a detailed grid of their time, marked off in half-hour blocks from 7 a.m. until midnight. First they fill in their classes and then plan out the other things they want to prioritize, like study time, meals, sleep, and time with friends.
Then they plan out a “typical week” and later report back on how things are going. This exercise helps students commit to a routine for the semester. We talk about what to do if they start to fall off their schedule — tell someone, get some encouragement, and start again. Good habits take time to build.
Sadly we can’t do anything to shorten the month of March, but we can at least take care of ourselves until the days lengthen and the snow melts.
Jackie Brousseau-Pereira, of Easthampton, is the academic dean and director of first-year seminars in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.