Protecting Your Mental Health over Winter Break

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

December 7, 2023

Mental Health faces

Winter holidays tend to cultivate a mix of emotions—stress, excitement, anxiety, sadness, relief and joy. These can be heightened by the backdrop of complex academic concerns, family dynamics and challenging cultural and world events. When our environment gets more complicated, it is particularly important to attend to our basic health needs, like eating, sleeping and connecting with others.

George Washington University Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) Director Laura Finkelstein shared some of tips for promoting well-being. Those included picking a small, self-soothing activity as a “touchstone” for difficult times, setting manageable goals, practicing gratitude, being gentle with yourself, reframing stressful situations, using media intentionally and doing an act of service.

Finkelstein noted that before practicing any of these strategies, the first step is to acknowledge your feelings and that any feeling you are experiencing is OK and normal. She said by tuning into your feelings (but examining the thoughts, physical sensations and behaviors that accompany it) and accepting it, you will be able to be more present and to work toward making healthy changes.

Here are other tips from CAPS:

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 of today, 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.

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 hygieneregular 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.

Make a safety plan. A safety plan can help guide you through difficult moments and keep you safe. Having a template on hand with an established plan may be helpful, or you can get help and guidance at

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, Academic LiveCare or MiResource to find a therapist who accepts your insurance. GW and CAPS also have many online mental health resources available, including a  self-help materials for specific populations and hotlines and resources for people in crisis.

How to Access GW’s Counseling Services

You can reach out to Counseling and Psychological Services by phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 202-994-5300. After hours or during university holidays, please listen to the options and request our crisis line. We offer same-day hours at the Student Health Center from Monday to Saturday, noon–4 p.m. You can also call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline any time. Calls are confidential. For help navigating other campus concerns, please submit a CARE referral at and a staff member will get back to you.