Classes are done, finals are complete, time for break! It sounds great – nearly a month without sitting through classes, stressing over homework, trying to juggle school with work, friends, life. But each break between semesters seems to bring challenges for many students.
While all that down time sounds fantastic, it quickly becomes a double-edged sword. Students often find that by the end of a long break, like winter break or even summer break, they feel worse than when it began. And this issue probably affects more students that we realize … because who wants to complain about time off?
So why do long breaks have the opposite effect from what we expect? There are several possible reasons.
First, you spend an entire semester, 16ish weeks, building a level of activity and stress then suddenly it’s just over. After your last final, there is a near absence of stuff to stress about in most cases. It’s a sudden drop in anticipation, worry, and stress levels, which equates to sudden shifts in stress hormones in the body and sudden changes in brain chemistry. All of that sometimes leaves you feeling like a balloon someone has just let the air out of. Taking a break is fantastic after all of that work and stress – in fact, it is absolutely necessary. However, after about 2 days of this, you start to notice the lack of activity and stress to which you’ve become accustomed.
Second, what we do with our down time can have a huge impact on our mood and day-to-day behavior. If you go into break with no plan, or a plan to do a whole bunch of nothing, you may run into problems. When we’re bored, there are a handful of passive activities we easily turn to.
Often, we think – and think, and think, and think. And for many people, too much time stuck in your own head with your thoughts often takes a downward turn. We start to analyze all of our flaws, the things that are wrong with our lives, what we should’ve done differently on those exams, how our lives aren’t where / what we want them to be by now, and on it goes. We fairly quickly notice a downward shift in our mood from doing “ok” to feeling, “blah,” to sad, and sometimes all the way to depressed. Not good.
Another frequent passive activity is hanging out on the couch scrolling through social media pages. We see all the amazing things others are doing, the fun times they’re having, the accomplishments they’ve achieved, and we begin to feel bad about ourselves.
Closely related to the social media binge is the streaming video binge. Whether your site of choice is YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, or another, it’s so easy to get hooked on a story line and realize you’ve just spent the last 7 hours sitting on the couch, eating chips, and watching TV (or the laptop). This leaves you feeling physically stiff, mentally fatigued, and low on energy. This is definitely not restorative down time.
If you’ve had a major stressor in your personal life during the semester, sometimes those are put on the back burner and not really dealt with because we’re so busy with school. These can catch up with you during break. Be prepared to bring out your best coping skills and use them so you’re not ambushed by this. Also, if you’ve lost a loved-one any time in the last year or 18 months, the break (with the lack of things to keep you busy and big holidays) can be a very difficult time. Knowing this in advance can sometimes buffer the impact we feel when those emotions and memories creep up on us.
Finally, a sometimes-unexpected fact can make winter break less enjoyable: changing relationships with family. As you go through college, you move from being a “kid” – a teenager under full parental supervision – to being an adult, but it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process and it doesn’t always happen smoothly. You may encounter more power struggles about curfews, house rules, and developing your own independence. This can be even more pronounced if you’re the first person in your family to go to college because you may feel that your parents just don’t understand what’s going on in your life now (and your parents may feel the same way). These changing relationships are normal and if you keep that in mind, it may make the process a bit easier.
So what can you do to avoid this month-long downward spiral? Here are some tips:
- Social media gets everyone’s “good” side.
When people post to social media, they usually post the best parts of their lives – fun times with good friends, pics that are most flattering, and the most brag-worthy achievements. It’s much less common for people to post failures, pics from first thing in the morning before they’ve brushed their hair or teeth, or boring nights sitting alone at home with nothing to do. Keep that in mind as your browse. Avoid the temptation to compare everyone else’s “A side” to your “B side.”
- Make a plan.
As you’re wrapping up the semester & exams, think about what you’d like to do over break. Allow yourself some free time (a good Netflix binge is ok once in a while – just not for a whole month), but also plan some active time. Check in with friends ahead of time to see when they’ll be around so you can plan something. Get out of the house! Go to the movies, out to dinner, walk the mall, anything that gets you up & out the door.
- Spend time with people.
It’s important that you not spend the entire (or even most of the) break alone in your room or apartment. Find some people to be around – spend time with family, reconnect with friends you don’t have a chance to see during the regular semester, find a way to make some new friends.
- Get active.
If the weather allows it, outside time is great. Some sunlight, especially in the winter, can do wonders for your mood. Be sure to keep up with whatever your regular routine of exercise has been, or use this time to create one if you haven’t been active. Moderate-intensity exercise improves mood, improves your thinking, decision making, and memory, and helps you sleep better. Workout with friends – bonus points for social interaction & exercise at the same time!
- If you’re really struggling, ask for help.
Sometimes the break, the holidays, the time alone can be extra difficult. If you’re dealing with an anxiety disorder, clinical depression, or grieving the loss of loved ones, the break may be even worse. If you’ve tried making a plan and getting out of the house and it’s just not helping; if your mood or anxiety are getting worse or you’re feeling desperate or even suicidal, it’s time to ask for help. You don’t have to be miserable. It is ok to ask for help. Talk to someone – your parents, a trusted friend, a therapist. There are several national hotlines you can call, or even text, to talk with someone 24 hours a day. Here are some:
Crisis Text Line: Text 741-741 any time and a live, trained crisis counselor will text you back.
IMALIVE Online Crisis Chat: https://www.imalive.org/
National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
Winter break is a great time to recoup from the busy semester; however, without a plan to make use of your time, you’ll find yourself wondering where the time went, and may end up feeling more down than before the break began. Stay active, get engaged with other people, and have a great break!!