Tips for Coping with the ‘Holiday Blues’

What to do when “the most wonderful time of the year” turns stressful?

December 15, 2014

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By Brittney Dunkins

’Tis the season to gather with friends, give gifts and ring in the New Year. But what if you’re having a not-so-happy holiday?

While many students are able to embrace the festive nature of the season, some struggle to cope with anxiety and stress caused by busy schedules and mounting obligations to family, friends and academics.

Silvio Weisner, director of the University Counseling Center, spoke with George Washington Today reporter Brittney Dunkins about ways to identify and cope with the “holiday blues.”

Q: What triggers holiday stress among students? Why are these feelings more common during a traditionally happy time?
A: The American holiday period from late November to January can be a period of high stress for most college students who are attempting to finish out their semester and are inundated with final exams and research papers. In addition, traveling home in inclement weather often increases stress during this season. Shorter days and more diffuse sunlight also can cause some people to feel sad or down. Students attending college far from home, such as international students, who may not be able to return home during winter break, may experience isolation and loneliness. 

There also is extra pressure during the holiday season to be "merry" and family-oriented. However, some students have family situations marked by loss or interpersonal conflict and face the prospect of returning home to disharmony. Further, for students from fragmented families, holidays can be stressful because of having to divide time between two or more households. Financial concerns may also be stressors for students and their families during the holiday season, which is traditionally a time for traveling and gift giving.

Q: How can students tell whether feelings of sadness are indicative of a more serious condition such as depression?
A: Everyone feels sad and down sometimes, and the holiday season can trigger such sadness in some people. However, students may want to consult with a medical or mental health professional about the possibility of depression if sadness persists for more than two weeks. Students should be aware of whether accompanying symptoms—such as sleep disturbance, poor appetite, difficulty concentrating and fatigue—become disruptive or cause intense subjective distress.

Q: What tactics can students use to relieve stress during the holiday season?
A: In general, self-care is critical for managing stress, and this is especially true during the holiday season. Students should get enough sleep, eat regular well-balanced meals, stay hydrated and engage in exercise or other physical activity. They should also spend time with friends and loved ones and limit alcohol, caffeine and nicotine use. Stimulating the senses by taking warm baths and listening to music and seeking out humor are also great ways to cope. It’s important that students also take periodic breaks from studying or stressful family situations, either alone or with the support of others. Finally, taking a new perspective on the holiday season can be effective. Remember, soon the holiday season will end, and a new year and a new academic semester will begin. 

Throughout the winter break students can receive phone assistance for mental health support by calling the 24-hour hotline at 202-994-5300. If you are concerned about a student please fill out a CARE Network form.

The UCC will be closed from Dec. 19 through Jan. 2 during the transition to the new Colonial Health Center located on the ground floor of the Marvin Center. Urgent mental health care services will be available beginning Dec. 29.  The university and the UCC will be closed Dec. 24, 25 and 31 and Jan. 1.

The Colonial Health Center will open on Jan. 5. Please check the UCC website for updates.