'Tis the season to be jolly - What college students need to know about decompressing over holiday break
So, you made it. The last scan tron is bubbled in. The last paragraph is written. The last "submit" button has been pushed. You are officially on break. Holiday cheer, sleeping in, and a few new gifts are among the things you have been looking forward to since final exam preparations began. The only problem is that the stress is lingering, your brain still hurts and you feel blah! You can barely put one foot in front of the other. You are dizzy from hours of studying, and those visions of sugar plum fairies you had dancing in your head several weeks ago have turned into dust. What you feel does not match the expected emotions of relief, excitement, and eagerness to be home.
You've spent the first few days at home worrying about grades. Your GPA is lower than you wanted. Your parents are still placing expectations on you and your friends The ones you thought would be there for you? They have disappeared. Throw in the mix relationship issues, financial worries, and...grades...again.
Life during "break" is not at all what you pictured. The spirit of the holidays is hard to find. You are finding it difficult to shake the Grinch -i- ness and the stress you've been holding for the last fourteen days. You are supposed to be in a jolly mood (because 'tis the season) and catching up with old friends, baking gingerbread cookies, and watching holiday movies. Instead you find your stress meter is far beyond a ten.
This is because the stress of college has created an imbalance in your mind and body. You are disillusioned, exhausted, and ready to sleep for days. You need a break, your brain needs a break, and your heart needs to be kissed under the mistletoe. You need some time to decompress and de-stress. Your mind and body have to align themselves as you begin several weeks of important self-care. It may be time to switch the "on" button to "off" and to listen to signals that justify the need to unwind.
How can you reach that level of deep relaxation like the one you had as a small child when you were lying on the ground staring at holiday lights, taking in the holiday smells of pine, cinnamon, and sugar cookies, and unwrapping in your mind those brightly wrapped gifts? The only care was if your parents would let you open a gift early. How can you reach this level of full alertness and mindfulness again? How is it possible to break out of the norm of stress that has been created in college?
Even at your age the ability to effectively manage the effects that college life and stress is a learned skill for some. Some teens and young adults clearly know what triggers their physiological responses to stress (headaches, shortness of breath, excessive sleep) and know what to do to keep it in check. Others have to be taught this unique skill. And, every college student responds differently to stress. Regardless, there are many effective strategies that help put the stress of college life into perspective.
Let's start with recognizing your stress. This is the first step in lessening the impact of stress. Observe yourself and your tendencies. Self-explore. This, too, is a skill and the more you practice recognizing how stress looks on you, the more control you will have over how it effects you. Do a body scan to see where your body is holding stress. Is your jaw clenched? Are your shoulders up by your ears? Are your fists tightened? Become aware of where stress sets in your body and what it feels like.
In addition to physical awareness, begin to identify the emotions that are causing your stress. For instance, "I am irritated at Sam for ditching me every time I ask him to do something and it is making me stress over our friendship." Identify the emotion causing the stress (irritation) and simply label it. Do not judge yourself for feeling irritable, just label that emotion, pause and plan an action. This shifts the brain from an emotional state of wanting to make a mad dash (and say something regretful to Sam) to a more thinking state of "I am in control here and need to take a walk outside to settle my thoughts." This can be a bit of a challenge because the brain tends to react more strongly to problems and than to good things like joy and pleasure. It is called "negative bias for you psychology majors.
It would be remiss to ignore how powerful mental thoughts affect your level of stress. Simply understand that when your mind is swirling with mental chaos, these bothersome, nagging thoughts are not always founded in fact, They can be fictitious and energy zapping. Remind yourself often that this stress induced thinking is the brain playing tricks. Also, know that the brain mimics the body, so when you are physically exhausted, your brain is as well. When your body is anxious and you find it hard to feel calm, your brain is swarming with excessive mental chatter - sometimes illogical and irrational. Know that you can actively create new thoughts and thinking patterns with practice and repetition and train the brain to disrupt negative thinking.
After you recognize stress physically, emotionally, and mentally, you can now manage it and tame it. There are plenty of strategies that you can use that will successfully lessen your stress level. Deep (diaphragmatic) breathing is one true way that gets your central nervous system into a relaxed state. Despite there being many ways to engage your body in deep breathing exercises, it is key to remember to use both the inhale and exhale for certain time frames to signal the brain to slow lower blood pressure, slow anxious breathing, and to drop heart rate.
Other holiday de-stressing strategies include:
1. Don't fight the stress by convincing yourself, "I'm fine." This only keeps the cycle going. Embrace stress and handle it with care.
2. Minimize the going and doing. Multi-tasking, over-commitment, and perfectionism can create a surge in anxiety. Make yourself slow down or even say "no". Tell yourself it is okay to do nothing or to do less.
3. Do what brings you happiness. Ignite an old hobby. Be with friends. Try a new recipe. Read. Do things that do not involve technology a larger percentage of your time at home.
4. Go outdoors and soak up vitamin D through sun light (if you have it). This will improve sleep and mood. Appreciate the sights, smells and sounds outside.
5. Be mindful of what you put into your body, making an effort to limit caffeine, alcohol, and not to overeat. Most college students who drink both caffeine and alcohol do not realize the effects on nutrition, sleep and mood both have. Now is a good time to monitor your intake.
6. Sleep. Good quality, REM sleep. Lots of it, but try to stay on a regular day and night schedule. In other words, sleeping until two o'clock every day will throw you off when you head back to campus.
7. Boost your nutrition. Eat less processed foods and concentrate on vitamin and nutrient rich foods, every day, not just once a week. Use this chance to boost your immune system because stress has compromised it. Foods high in Vitamin B reduce stress.
8. Rid of self-sabotaging thoughts. If you've been crowding your mind with thoughts of imperfection or thoughts driven by low self-esteem or poor body image, it is a great time to clean it up. Your brain begs for clean thoughts just like it begs for clean foods. Look at your life position at this moment and fit it into the big picture of your life. Keep thoughts centered on what you have control over, and have your actions follow your clean thoughts. Self-belief with positive self images will increase your dopamine. This in turn helps you feel motivated and accomplished, taking your thoughts out of the negative loop.
9. Share. Volunteer. Place yourself in a restful, peaceful, and giving environment. Produce more of the "happy" hormone oxytocin.
10. Self-reflect. What will you do differently next semester? How will things change so that your stress level decreases? How will you better care for yourself? What thoughts do you need to nurture or eliminate? What will your expectations be? How will you better balance all aspects of college living?
Your energy goes where your thoughts are. Make your thoughts joyful, thankful, kind, and in the present moment. Be clear and honest with yourself and plop yourself under the holiday lights, staring at the brightly wrapped gifts once again.