A guide to surviving the holidays

The holiday season is right around the corner. Many people often see the holidays as a positive and happy time. However, there can be situations or emotions students may experience during the holidays which are not so positive. For some students, the holidays may pose mental health challenges.

The American Psychological Association reported that 38 percent of people surveyed said their stress increased during the holiday season, and a survey by the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) found that 64 percent of people with mental illness report holidays make their conditions worse.

“While the holidays can be a joyful time for some students, it can also be a challenging time for those who are far from loved ones, grieving the loss of a loved one or don’t find their holiday and cultural traditions celebrated or recognized,” said Jessica Lopez, licensed marriage and family therapist at California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB).

“For the holidays, you can’t beat home, sweet home,” states the classic Christmas song “Home for the Holidays.” However, going back home for the holidays can be a stressful experience. 

“Students returning home for breaks may feel stressed for various reasons. Some may want to avoid family criticism or interrogation about their academic progress, plans for the future, relationships status, etc.,” Lopez said. 

Lopez offered some helpful tips to students.

“If you have certain topics you just don’t want to discuss, come up with some statements beforehand such as: ‘thanks for asking, I’m working on that with my academic adviser,’” Lopez said. “Or ‘I’m making progress, thanks, how are things going for you?’ You can also take the lead in starting conversations and trying to steer them toward something you enjoy talking about.”

Even if students are braced for interrogation, their responses may not align with their family’s views. 

“Some students may find that their values and worldviews have shifted and can, at times, be in conflict with their family or region of origin,” Lopez said.

An article by NAMI’s California chapter advises, “Set boundaries. Family dynamics can be complex. Acknowledge them and accept that you can only control your role. If you need to, find ways to limit your exposure.” 

Lopez echoed NAMI’s statements.

“No one’s experience will be alike, so it’s really helpful for students to think about their situation in advance. What are they expecting and hoping for over break and is this realistic?” Lopez asked. “Can they talk with their supporters before going home to indicate if they have plans to study or meet up with friends – making sure they have shared expectations?”

The holidays may pose unique challenges for some students.

“For some international students, fall and winter breaks can increase loneliness since so many peers leave the campus,” Lopez said. “Also, if these holidays are celebrated at home, they may be different here or feel not as enjoyable since they are far from home.”

Lopez has come prepared with suggestions to help students combat feelings of loneliness.

“Some students may find it helpful to gather with other students who are still on campus, planning a meal or activity together,” Lopez said. “Perhaps enjoying the local spots or going for a hike or a beach trip to enhance a sense of connection with something that is universal such as nature.”

Lopez offers some final advice to students who may struggle with mental health during the holiday season.

“There’s no one way to cope and enjoy the holidays. Do your best, focus on what’s in your control such as how you respond to stress, and remember, it’s a holiday season so it will come to an end,” Lopez said. “Then you can go back to your routine and things that bring you joy without all the holiday pressure!” 

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