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End of semester signifies winter holidays, anxiety

November 29, 2007

The holiday season can bring a lot of fun or loads of stress depending on family dynamics and class demands.

“It’s a busy time of year for counselors,” Alice Reilly-Myklebust, UW-River Falls director of Student Health and Counseling Services, said.

Student Counseling Services were so busy as of mid-November that every appointment slot for the next three weeks was filled.

The thought of going home for the holidays can be stressful if students aren’t getting along with members of their family or are dealing with relationship issues, UWRF Counselor Dave Sommers said.

Students may also experience a surge of stress before holiday gatherings when their parents are divorced or separated.

Thanksgiving and Christmas leave junior Alison Vruwink in the center of negotiations between parents to determine which of them will host each meal.

“It’s a little odd this year because my sister’s birthday falls on Thanksgiving, so we can’t just give it to one or the other,” Vruwink said.

Senior Sam Clair said he doesn’t have issues with family stress.

Family is “a good kind of stress,” Clair said.

Instead, most of Clair’s stress comes from writing papers and studying for upcoming exams.

School problems, like feeling overwhelmed by homework and worrying about finals and grades, bring more students to counseling services this time of year than family issues, UWRF counselor Jennifer Elsesser said.

Students living on campus used to have few options but to go home for holidays because residence halls would be closed over breaks. For students not getting along with their parents, this led to arguments and stress.

Residence halls have been left open through all breaks for the past four years or so to accommodate the many students in need of a place to stay over breaks, West Area Residence Life Coordinator Jason Neuhaus said.

“Now, since students can stay on campus [over the holidays] if they want to, it’s lessened the [family-related] stress,” Elsesser said.

Though family stress is generally less of a problem, students still have to contend with school-related stress.

“This is the time of year when it all seems to be caving in on students,” Sommers said.

Often students in counseling sessions report that the number of big projects increases near the end of the semester to the point that they feel like they can’t finish everything. Additionally, this is the time in the semester when students start to assess how successful they are in a course, which can leave students who don’t think they are doing very well feeling stressed out, Sommers said.

Some students respond to stress by withdrawing from their friends and family and the activities they used to enjoy. They may also quit exercising and skip classes.

“Sometimes the best thing you can do is get out of bed in the morning,” Elsesser said.

Stopping to move around and have fun re-energizes students and makes it easier for them to focus on their studies, Elsesser said.

Impending deadlines and major tests can lead students to cut down on sleep. Staying up late for a few extra hours of studying can be counterproductive because people retain information from the day before during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, a state of rest that the body enters after several hours of sleep, Sommers said.

If someone only sleeps a few hours, they won’t experience REM sleep. This is why Sommers recommends that students stop studying in time to get eight hours of sleep for the night.

Other students may deal with their stress with more dangerous behaviors such as drinking, which only makes things worse.

“Obviously, you can’t study if you’re drinking too much,” Sommers said.

If students come in with family or relationship concerns, counselors will help them develop better communication skills.

Holiday encounters may be less stressful if students are prepared to talk to their parents and others they are at odds with in the way that is most likely to be understood, Elsesser said.

Student Counseling Services can help stressed out students develop other skills to overcome their stress. Students who want to make an appointment to talk with a counselor should call (715)425-3884. There currently is a waiting list for counseling appointments, but counselors will still set up emergency sessions if someone needs immediate help for mental health issues.