Holding It Together Over Winter Break

young woman staring out the window in winter
Winter break is here, and not a minute too soon! After a jam-packed semester capped off with the stress of final exams, you can hardly wait to decompress and play. And sleep.

For many students, time off over the holiday season means the chance to hang out with old friends and get lots of hugs from much-missed family. For some, however, the thought of a return home brings more stress and anxiety than comfort and joy.

See if you can relate to any of these all-too-common concerns college students encounter when winter break is looming large. With some proactive planning, you can identify your typical triggers. Then, you can take actionable steps that set you up for a rejuvenating break and a refreshed return when the new semester starts.

Too much free time on your hands?

After living for months with a rigid schedule in which nearly every hour was accounted for, now nothing but open-ended free time lies ahead of you. For some college students, this is pure bliss. For others, it’s sheer boredom.

If you’re someone who does better with an itinerary, start making a list of things you want to experience or accomplish over your break. Ideas include:

  • Plan a weekend getaway with best friends back home. Maybe a New England ski trip, New Year’s in Las Vegas, or a condo rental on a Florida beach.
  • Purchase five books you’ve been dying to read for pleasure. And be sure you get real printed books you can hold in your hands instead of e-books. You enjoy all the relaxing feelings and brain-building benefits without the circadian-rhythm-disrupting blue light from a screen.
  • Recommit to that running, swimming, or tennis program your studies have pulled you away from. It will relieve stress, tone muscles, and improve your ability to focus and concentrate when school resumes.
  • Give of yourself to others by volunteering in your hometown. Holidays bring numerous opportunities to serve, whether it’s helping with the annual Christmas dinner at the soup kitchen, delivering presents to families in need, or walking the dogs at your local animal shelter.

Too little cash in your wallet?

Perhaps part of the stress of going home involves a college budget with little room for gift buying. Be honest with family and friends about your financial limitations. Ask if you can do a Secret Santa gift exchange this year.

You can also put your free time to good use by seeking a temporary job over the holidays. Retailers always need seasonal help. Neighbors who are traveling for the holidays need pet and house sitters. There are a variety of ways to earn fast cash over winter break that can then take some of the stress out of your spring semester.

Too much family drama?

If gathering around the turkey and ham with relatives is always a setup for dysfunction, start planning your self-care steps well in advance. Maybe you need to limit the amount of time you spend with relatives and set some firm scheduling boundaries. Let people know in advance when you’re available and for how long. It’s OK to have somewhere else to go after you’ve put in a brief appearance. It’s also OK to decline to attend gatherings that make you feel uncomfortable.

If substance abuse is an issue for you or family members, be sure you know the locations and times of nearby recovery meetings. 12 Step fellowships such as Al-Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics are free to attend and great places to seek support on a drop-in basis. Just show up and take a seat. You may be surprised by how full the welcoming rooms are of very understanding people over the often-difficult holiday period.

Too many unrealistic expectations?

Are you prone to feeling especially depressed over the holidays? One of the biggest causes of holiday depression symptoms is unrealistic expectations, reports University Health News.

Maybe you believe that all of your classmates are off having the times of their lives with loving families and adoring siblings while you struggle to cope with your very difficult home situation. It’s important to see this as the myth that it is. Holidays are stressful and challenging for many people. Often that’s because the vision of a “perfect” holiday celebration conflicts with the reality.

The American Psychological Association suggests you keep things in perspective. “On the whole, the holiday season is short. It helps to maintain a broader context and a longer-term perspective. If something goes wrong, realize it’s not the end of the world. Remember the good things you have in your life, and recognize that this situation will pass.”

Too few close friends?

University Health News cites a study of 420 Chicago-area college students that investigated their feelings about the Christmas holiday. “Researchers found that three of the most common themes are loneliness, anxiety, and helplessness.”

If you lack a network of supportive friendships at home, resolve to change this when you return to school. One of the best ways to build a college community is to get involved in a few student clubs and organizations on campus that meet your needs and interests.

Too many overwhelming feelings?

College is a very exciting time, but it can also be extremely challenging. Everything is new and different, including your surroundings, your coursework, your meal plan, and your sleep schedule.

Most college students settle into the groove very comfortably after an adjustment period. But if you feel like you just can’t get oriented to your new situation and experience ongoing feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or irritability—you might be dealing with depression.

You’re not alone. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that depression is the most common health problem for college students. But it can be treated, and early treatment is best.

The good news is that most colleges offer free or low-cost mental health services to students. Search out your university’s counseling center. You’ll find a safe place to talk to a trained professional about your life and anything that may be painful or confusing.

If you can’t seem to shake those blue feelings despite your best efforts, take advantage of the listening ears and compassionate support a professional psychotherapist can offer you.

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