Protecting Your Mental Health over Thanksgiving and Winter Break

Counseling and Psychological Services’ Jessica Parrillo offers tips on how to maintain balance during winter transitions to and from school.

Image of sad, neutral and happy face drawings
November 16, 2021

By Ruth Steinhardt

For most people, “stress” is a word more associated with work than vacation. As Thanksgiving Break approaches, however, it’s important to acknowledge that the holidays have their own complications—particularly at a historical moment that can feel like an unending series of national and global emergencies. Routines are disrupted, old challenges resurface, and even free time can become a source of anxiety as many of us face stressors at home at least as powerful as those we face away from it.

“The holidays often are a source of familiar traditions and rituals which can be grounding and a welcome source of relief for some,” says Jessica Parrillo, director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at the George Washington University’s Colonial Health Center. “However, for others traveling home brings new challenges. Especially as we try to return to what society is attempting to call a ‘normal’ post-pandemic life, we are seeing individuals experience high levels of stress, worry and anxiety that developed during the pandemic or are developing as they try to figure out what’s next in their new environment.”

Below, a few tips on how to maintain balance and prioritize your mental health over break.

  • Acknowledge your feelings. Disruptions to routine like leaving campus are stressful for most people. It’s completely understandable to feel anxious about them. Even in families with strong positive relationships and plenty of resources, re-establishing a family life after an absence—even temporarily—can bring up complicated feelings. And many families, of course, face emotional or material challenges that add extra complications.

    Particularly given the global challenges we’re all dealing with in 2021, from climate change to COVID-19, you may be experiencing anxiety that feels ambient and difficult to trace to a single source. Allow yourself time and space to reflect on your emotions and reactions to the world around you.

    “It is completely normal not to feel ‘okay’ during this time, and before you can identify ways to cope, you need to give yourself permission to access and normalize your thoughts and feelings,” Dr. Parrillo said. “Fear and stress aren't necessarily bad in and of themselves, especially when they motivate us to assess what is feeling threatening so as to make more informed and empowered decisions about how to respond. For example, taking inventory of what is within our control, as opposed to what's outside it, can allow us to then decide to direct our energy only to those things we have control over.”
     
  • Show yourself compassion. Be kind to yourself as you transition back to being at home. You may be readjusting to an old milieu, or you may find yourself dealing with new issues—in either case, experiencing pain, anger or distance is normal. Try to talk to yourself the way you would to a friend.
     
  • Be mindful of information overload. Staying informed is great. Oversaturating yourself with an endless flood of news—much of it beyond our individual control—may not be. “Awareness” may feel like a moral obligation, especially for a politically involved community like GW’s, but it’s not a useful goal in and of itself. It’s okay and even necessary to occasionally remove yourself from the information pipeline. Your efforts to build a better world are more effective when you’re not exhausted. Many people find mindfulness apps like Calm or Headspace useful in bringing focus away from uncontrollable hypotheticals and back to the present moment.
     
  • Establish boundaries with friends and loved ones. You cannot be everything to everyone, especially during the limited time afforded by a school break. Take time to reflect on what you can be and want to be for others, then kindly set boundaries around what you can and can’t do. That might mean physical boundaries (“I will need time to go for a run every day”) or conversational ones (“I will not be talking about vaccination with Uncle Fester”). Breaking patterns and setting healthy boundaries can be difficult, but with compassion and consistency you can establish them and feel more balanced.
     
  • Take breaks. Even for adults decades out of their teens, a return to the family home can trigger a certain amount of emotional regression and even relapses into unhealthy childhood patterns. That problem may be even more pronounced for young adults just establishing their independence. One of the best ways to avoid it is to take breaks to check in with yourself. You may still be a baby to your grandma, but you are an adult, which means you’re not obligated to be constantly available. You’re entitled to alone time, a phone call with friends or whatever healthy pursuit helps you feel renewed. (If that means locking yourself in the bathroom for half an hour, so be it.)
     
  • Establish (or maintain) routines. We’re all tired of hearing about the importance of good habits, but things like good sleep hygiene, regular meals that are as nutritious as possible and minimal daily exercise do, annoyingly, make a difference to both our physical health and our sense of well-being. If you’re already putting your phone away at night and taking time outdoors every day, great! If not, it’s always worth taking small steps.
     
  • Connect and reach out for support. If you feel safe turning to your family for emotional support when you’re struggling, they may be an invaluable resource. But in the age of telework and remote learning, your options are not limited to the people in your house. Take time to communicate with friends and other loved ones. If you feel professional therapy may be of use, you can access support through a service like OpenPath, or use Psychology Today or MiResource to find a therapist who accepts your insurance.

    GW and CAPS also have many online mental health resources available, including a comprehensive COVID-19 mental health tool kit, self-help materials for specific populations and hotlines and resources for people in crisis.

 

How to Access GW’s Counseling Services

Call 202-994-5300 any time (24 hours a day, seven days a week) to schedule an appointment and learn more about our individualized stepped care model of counseling or to talk to an on-call counselor for more urgent mental health needs. Counselors also are available from noon to 4 p.m. daily for immediate virtual visits where no pre-scheduled appointment is needed. Call 202-994-5300 during these hours to be connected to a counselor.

Please Note: The Health Center is closed for in-person and telehealth appointments on university holidays. If the Center is closed during regular business hours, your call will connect you to an after-hours service where you will be connected to an on-call medical provider or counselor for assistance.


 

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