Looking After Your Mental Health This Holiday Season

I, like many of my peers on campus, am counting down the days to winter break. Between all of the assignments, projects, exams, and meetings before ending this semester, I am beyond ready for some rest and relaxation. As excited as I am for a break and celebrating the holidays with my friends and family, it is important to acknowledge the struggles students can go through this time of year. Sometimes the “most wonderful time of the year” can turn into the exact opposite, and that can happen in a lot of ways. Common stressors include:

  • Adjusting to expectations at home. For some students, winter break includes moving back home. After experiencing college and having endless freedom, it can be frustrating going back to following your household rules from high school.
  • Substance abuse. Using substances is a holiday staple for many families. Substance use can be a stressor students face, but it can also become an unhealthy coping mechanism to handle emotional difficulties and stress the holidays can inflict. Being mindful of substance use is necessary to avoid substance abuse.
  • Grieving. Grieving a loss is difficult at any time of year, but especially during the holiday season. Celebrating and practicing traditions can be a reminder your loved one is no longer with you, coupled with expectations to be jolly can feel emotionally overwhelming.
  • Loneliness. Going home for winter break can be a great time to unwind, but it can become lonely when you realize your college friends aren’t with you. Furthermore, friendships and relationships can change when you leave for college, and it can be lonely realizing some of them have changed since you left for school. Additionally, for international and domestic students who are not able to return home for break, the quiet of campus and distance from loved ones can be very difficult.
  • Differing traditions. The diversity of human experience leads us to celebrate different holidays and celebrate holidays differently. The pandemic, not being with family, celebrating with someone else’s family, etc. could include practicing traditions that are unconventional to you. Or, winter break could include feeling like your traditions and values are being disregarded.
  • Challenges with food. Many holiday traditions are centered around meals and eating. With that can come unhelpful comments from friends or family members. Additionally, the emphasis on food can activate dysfunctional eating or negative self-image.

These challenges present themselves in many different ways. If you have not reflected on your emotions during the holiday season before, it is possible you did not notice these stressors were affecting you. Thankfully, a little self-care can go a long way in helping maintain your mental health during these times. Some ways I look after my mental health include:

  • Focus on what you can control. Getting wrapped up in a stressful situation is unfortunately simple for me to do. In moments where I am overthinking, I take a few moments to do a deep breathing exercise. I have found the box breathing method to be most useful for me because it is quick and can be done anywhere pretty discreetly, but there are many more options out there. By recognizing and letting go of the things that are out of your control, it makes day-to-day activities less demanding.
  • Keep healthy habits. The term “healthy habit” means something different to everyone. A habit does not need to relate to your physical fitness or diet in order to be healthy. During the holidays, I make a point to drink enough water every day, reflect on my emotions as different stressors arise, and get adequate sleep every night. Healthy habits should focus on your physical health as well as your mental and emotional health.
  • Make time for yourself. The holidays are a season of giving, so it can seem wrong to take time for yourself. However, it is important to remember self-care is not selfish, and you cannot pour from an empty glass. Making time for yourself makes the time you spend with others more enjoyable. Over break, I will make time for myself with exercise and watching painfully predictable Hallmark movies.
  • Create new traditions. One of my favorite things about college has been learning about the different traditions my peers have. There are so many ways to celebrate the same holidays, and this year I plan on incorporating some new traditions I have learned with my friends back home over break.
  • Ask for help if you need it. Asking for help does not make you weak. The holidays are demanding and, quite frankly, can be absolutely draining. Sometimes reaching out can be a great step towards restoring your mental health. Asking for help can be done via text, call, Facetime/Zoom, or an in-person conversation””whichever makes you feel most comfortable and is most convenient.

A note for loved ones and parents: When your student returns home from break, we would encourage you to check in as a listener, be curious about their semester, their self-care, and well-being. Sometimes one of the biggest things parents and loved ones can provide is a listening ear without judgment or suggestions.

Before winter break comes, it could be beneficial to reflect on any aspects of your break that could challenge you personally. If you identify any potential stressors, creating a plan to manage the emotions they provoke can help you cope. Furthermore, incorporating some activities you enjoy into your plan can ensure you have a peaceful and restorative break.