Managing the Emotional Roller Coaster

This past weekend, I took an evening walk and realized that, although nothing looks terribly different just yet, I was able to feel the cool bite of fall in the air for the first time this year. Then I thought — once again, it’s time to say goodbye to summer and welcome the start of another academic year. For some of you, that means returning to familiar faces and places, but with the added promise of a year full of new classes, people, and other experiences. For those of you just starting out at UO, it means the beginning of an entirely new chapter of your life. Although our experiences may be different, we are all looking at an upcoming time of change.

As a psychologist on campus, one of the things I find myself frequently hearing from students is some variation of, “But I hate change!” I hear this as an acknowledgement that change can be scary and hard. Research tells us that even the changes we welcome, such as going off to college or beginning an exciting new relationship, generate stress. This is something we don’t acknowledge often enough, particularly when it comes to the college experience. Too frequently, cultural myths (e.g., “college is going to be the best four years of your life”) prevent us from openly discussing the reality that like any experience, college is complex, and its beginning, middle, and end are often characterized by both highs AND lows.

Maintaining a realistic perspective while navigating the upcoming changes is one coping skill that can support your emotional well-being. Another important part of that process is allowing your experience and your feelings to be what they are, without the added pressure of trying to fulfill any “shoulds,” “musts,” and “ought tos” your brain may have accumulated over time. Here are a few other tips for handling the stress of change to temper the pitch of what can be an emotional roller coaster:

  • Get the amount of rest that feels right for your body. Remember that either too little or too much sleep can take a toll.
  • Eat balanced and nutritious meals that make you feel good, and use your hunger and fullness cues to guide when you start and stop eating. (Research supports the idea that our brains require key nutrients to maintain mental health.)
  • If you use mood-altering substances, try to balance enjoyment with thoughtfulness. It might be helpful to check in with yourself periodically by asking: Has the intake/frequency of my use changed recently? Am I using to manage stress? Have there been any negative consequences as the result of my use? Am I using to avoid difficult emotions? If you answer “Yes” to one or more of these questions, it might be time to re-examine your use and make some changes.
  • Get in some type of exercise every day. Start where you are and gradually build up to 20 minutes of physical exercise each day. This can make a tremendous difference in mood for many of us.
  • Make your physical well-being a priority. Get routine check-ups and see your doctor when you’re ill. (When you’re feeling physically well, stress is less likely to trigger emotional distress.)
  • Do something that is enjoyable and/or that makes you feel accomplished each day. When we make time for fun and feel good about who we are and what we are doing, we feel better in general.
  • Finally, reach out for support when you need it, whether that’s from a friend, family member, or a campus resource like the Counseling Center. Don’t wait until you are floundering, emotionally or academically. There are many free services on campus designed to help you thrive and succeed.

All of these steps are key in laying the groundwork for being able to handle change more comfortably. Take excellent care of yourselves, and may you each have a year that fulfills and challenges you in the ways that contribute to your growth!

Susie Musch, Ph.D.

Staff Psychologist

Easing the Stress of Graduation

Every spring, as the school year draws to a close and graduation looms on the horizon, I think about the theme of life transitions — times when one era of our lives is ending and another one is about to begin. I think of all the emotions that arise like excitement, anxiety and fear, and sadness, to name a few. I’m also aware of how perplexing and challenging it can be to be at a point in your life where you are experiencing many of these feelings simultaneously. Then, since I am a therapist, I switch into thinking about ways to ease the difficulty of transitions for others

The first step in easing the stress of transitions is to recognize that major transitions are tough, reminding yourself that it’s okay to feel the above mentioned and other emotions. There is no one “right way” to experience or feel about change. Similarly, it’s helpful to remind yourself that thousands of other students are graduating each spring and that you are not alone in this process. If the negative emotions feel overwhelming at times, remember to use your go-to strategies that help you to cope like talking with friends, doing your favorite breathing exercise, going to your yoga class, taking a hike, etc.

If you are a person who feels a lot of anxiety around not having a plan for the future, then go ahead and make one, even if that plan includes allowing yourself to not have a plan for a while. Spending time actively planning and making decisions (even small ones) related to your next steps can help to reduce the anxiety of the unknown. If you’re graduating and unsure about a future career path it may be helpful to utilize resources like the Career Center. It’s also worth mentioning, that some services through the UO Career Center are available up to a year after graduation for UO alumni. So, even if you have a plan now and decide later that it doesn’t feel like the best fit, then this could be a resource for you in the future. This leads into another helpful reminder:  it’s okay to change course. The decisions you are making now don’t have to be permanent ones, even if they sometimes feel that way.

One of the most difficult aspects of life transitions is saying goodbye to important people in our lives. So, take some time to honor these relationships in whatever ways feels best to you. Whether that is having a goodbye dinner with friends, high-fiving with your classmate, sending an e-mail to your favorite professor, or crying it out with your closest friend, do so, and don’t be afraid to talk about your worries and fears around possible separation. I was recently reminded by a friend that sometimes goodbyes are just as important or even more so to those who care about us. Reaching out to them can allow them to say goodbye and to express their appreciation to you. Try to create these opportunities and attend events that you’re invited to by others. Goodbyes can be one of the most challenging parts of a transition, so allow yourself to grieve if that feels right for you.

You can ease the strain of saying goodbye by making a plan to stay in contact. Consider discussing a plan for phone dates/skype dates, sending each other messages on various forms of social media, planning a reunion or a visit, having a text conversation while you watch your favorite TV show every week, sending a random e-mail, etc. It often helps to ease the sense of loss to be in agreement about the next time you plan to be in touch.

Finally, take a moment to reflect about your time at UO. Transitions can be a whirlwind filled with emotions and things to do. Carve out time to reflect, center yourself, and think about what this era of your life has meant to you, and what you hope to create in the future.

Whitney Statham

Post-Doctoral Resident

Let’s Talk about Race

Let’s start with the facts: there are 24,125 students enrolled at UO as of Fall term 2015. Among those students, 2% have identified as Black or African America, 5.5% as Asian, 9.4% as Hispanic or Latino/a, 5.8% as Multi-ethnic, and less than 1% of students as American Indian/Alaska Native or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander. The fact is that we are in a predominantly White institution (PWI), and if you are a person of color, you are likely reminded of this fact time and time again. Through our own experiences as people of color in a PWI, we are very familiar with the feeling of being the minority on campus, and we imagine that we are not the only ones to feel this way.

Over the past year, we wanted to explore the experiences of students of color at the UO through a series of focus groups. From these discussions we learned how common the feeling of being marginalized or alienated can be. We learned that these students are often made to feel like they don’t belong, either by being the only person of color (POC) in the room, hearing someone butcher their name, or being asked where they are from (since they can’t possibly be from here, can they?). They are often made to feel misunderstood or feel unheard by their peers, teachers, and even their families.

Navigating their various identities and cultural backgrounds is a balancing act because many students of color don’t just check one box for race/ethnicity or have the same experiences as their parents’ generation. One challenge they face is having to balance cultural differences between family and friends. And what’s worse, their experiences are often called into question or disregarded, whether they are labeled as “too sensitive or over-reactive” or told that they are too focused on being “PC.” Obviously, the experiences of each racial and ethnic group are not the same. But in our focus groups we found a shared narrative of feeling misunderstood and disconnected.

So what can be done? How can we move forward? There is no clear solution for how to address these challenges. Nonetheless, from these conversations we gained invaluable suggestions for how to improve services beyond a “we support diversity” sign. These discussions also highlighted the strength of simply allowing a student of color to feel heard and understood. Regardless of your race, the focus groups highlighted the importance of showing empathy and understanding for students of color’s unique experience.

We also learned how powerful the opportunity to share our experiences can have for us as people of color in connecting with other people with shared identities. Whether it’s through a friend, a center, or a student group, the feeling of someone saying “I know exactly how you feel” or “I’ve had the exact same thing happen to me” can make all the difference. If you are feeling alone or have a raw feeling about what someone said, connecting to others who share or can understand that experience can make the difference between feeling excluded and feeling like you belong.

We hope that students of color will continue to find supportive spaces and that each individual on this campus can do their part to create a more inclusive and empathic environment for these students. One example is Racial Dialogues, which was created by members of the Counseling Center staff. Meeting every week, we work not only to support each other but also to develop our capacity for understanding and ability to address difficult situations that arise for students of color. Through such shared experiences, we hope to offer a space that nurtures reflection and solidarity through dialogue and connection.

Racial Dialogues

Carson, Ramey Room

Thursdays, 5-6pm

We will end with a quote from one of our early conversations in our focus group: “I’m very thankful to be a part of this discussion, and I, I feel so encouraged . . . there’s this sense of togetherness with people who have the same or similar experiences and it’s very uplifting and I feel like I have that courage to tell other people like, wow you’re not alone.”


Eric Garcia M.S.

Outreach Specialist, Graduate Teaching Fellow


Wing Ng

Student Mental Health Advocate and Outreach Intern

Why Bathroom Access Matters

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about bathrooms. On the surface, this certainly may seem like an odd start to a blog — or any conversation for that matter. But bathrooms matter. Not having access to bathrooms can be a significant barrier to transgender, nonbinary, genderqueer, and agender individuals.

Several states recently have been debating and passing “bathroom bills,” which restrict access to appropriate bathrooms for trans individuals. This makes me think about how unconscious cisgender privilege drives the process and gets reinforced (that is, the privilege of having one biological sex match one’s gender identity).

As a cisgender woman, I have the privilege of not having to think twice about which bathroom I use. I don’t think about bathrooms when I’m shopping, out to eat, at work, or traveling. If I need to use the restroom, I push open the women’s restroom and enter. I’m never afraid. I never look around to see if someone is watching me enter. I never scan the bathroom for my safety. My cisgender privilege allows me to not have to think about these things at all.

If you happen to be cisgender, think about this for a minute. Think about the places you frequent and ponder how things would change if you didn’t know whether you would be able to access safe and appropriate bathrooms. Would your favorite coffee shop be as appealing if there wasn’t an accessible bathroom? What about going to classes through your day?

What if you were required by law to use only bathrooms designated as being for the opposite gender? What if every time you had to use a public restroom you had to share it with those from a different gender than your own?  This is what is being debated and enacted into law in states and cities right now, directed at transgender adults and youth.

So, yes, I ask you to think about bathrooms. I invite you to walk in someone else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes.  I also invite you take action and become an ally, e.g., speak up when the topic arises, advocate for single gender bathrooms and individuals’ rights to access safe and appropriate bathrooms for their gender.

Together we can create a safer and more inclusive world for everyone.


Stacie Rowan, Ph.D.

Case Manager & Senior Staff Psychologist

Marijuana: Understanding Your Use

As you may know, recreational marijuana use was legalized in Oregon this past year for those 21 or older. Though cannabis use is still not allowed on campus, this change in legal status provides a great time to reflect on the role it plays in your life — or the life of someone you care about. While many people use pot without any serious problems, others find that their use leads to unwelcome changes in their physical or mental health. Cannabis may have a reputation as being a “soft” drug, but dependency can develop just as with any other substance.

I’d like to use this blog post to guide you through some questions to help you better understand your use. Reflecting on your use of marijuana may provide an opportunity to heighten your awareness and give you a greater sense of control around why and when you choose to use or not to. For those whose use is problematic, this reflection may serve as an opportunity to take action and reduce potential harm.

Ask the question: Why do I smoke? Take some time to explore what you see as the benefits of smoking in your life. Cannabis may play a variety of roles in one’s life, some of which may feel beneficial and others that might be getting in your way. In what situations do you find yourself using cannabis most frequently? What are the reasons you smoke at these times? Does your use help you feel more able to connect with peers? To reduce unwanted feelings of anxiety or sadness? To help you sleep?

What has changed since you started smoking? It is common for marijuana user’s habits to change over time. This may mean more frequent or less frequent use, or spending an increasing amount of time smoking or engaging in cannabis related activities. Users may also notice changes in their interests, motivations, and relationships. Has smoking changed who you spend time with, how you spend that time, or the priorities you have when it comes to school? Are you happy with the changes that have occurred?

The following is a screening test that may also help you better understand your use.

Please answer the following questions about your cannabis use. Select the response that is most correct for you in relation to your cannabis use over the last six months.

  1. How often do you use cannabis?
  • Never (0 points)
  • Monthly or less (1 point)
  • 2-4 times a month (2 points)
  • 2-3 times a week (3 points)
  • 4 or more times a week (4 points)
  1. How many hours were you “stoned” on a typical day when you were using cannabis?
  • Less than 1 (0 points)
  • 1 or 2 (1 point)
  • 3 or 4 (2 points)
  • 5 or 6 (3 points)
  • 7 or more (4 points)
  1. How often during the last 6 months did you find that you were not able to stop using cannabis once you had started?
  • Never (0 points)
  • Less than monthly (1 point)
  • Monthly (2 points)
  • Weekly (3 points)
  • Daily or almost daily (4 points)
  1. How often during the last 6 months did you fail to do what was normally expected from you because of using cannabis?
  • Never (0 points)
  • Less than monthly (1 point)
  • Monthly (2 points)
  • Weekly (3 points)
  • Daily or almost daily (4 points)
  1. How often in the past 6 months have you devoted a great deal of your time to getting, using or recovering from cannabis?
  • Never (0 points)
  • Less than monthly (1 point)
  • Monthly (2 points)
  • Weekly (3 points)
  • Daily or almost daily (4 points)
  1. How often during the last 6 months have you had a problem with your memory or concentration after using cannabis?
  • Never (0 points)
  • Less than monthly (1 point)
  • Monthly (2 points)
  • Weekly (3 points)
  • Daily or almost daily (4 points)
  1. How often do you use cannabis in situations that could be physically hazardous, such as driving, operating machinery, or caring for children?
  • Never (0 points)
  • Less than monthly (1 point)
  • Monthly (2 points)
  • Weekly (3 points)
  • Daily or almost daily (4 points)
  1. Have you ever thought about cutting down, or stopping, your use of cannabis?
  • Never (0 points)
  • Yes, but not in the past 6 months (2 points)
  • Yes, during the past 6 months (4 points)

Scoring: This questionnaire is scored by adding each of the 8 items. Questions 1-7 are scored on a 0-4 scale. Question 8 is scored 0, 2 or 4. Scores of 8 or higher indicate concerning cannabis use. Scores of 12 or higher indicates that you might benefit from exploring your use with a professional.

If you are thinking about cutting down or stopping cannabis use on your own, here is a great online resource:  Quitting Marijuana: A 30 Day Self Help Guide

My hope is that through better understanding your use, you will be able to find ways to make sure that you are in control of your decision to use cannabis, or not.

Hillel Samlan, M.A.

Graduate Teaching Fellow & Extern

Am I Depressed?

As a psychologist in a university counseling center, I encounter students struggling with a number of different issues. But there is one type of student that I see quite frequently, and it looks something like this . . .

They have been struggling with a lack of motivation and low energy for the past few weeks/months. They don’t seem to want to go outside or spend time with their friends. They either have trouble sleeping or want to sleep all day. They can’t seem to focus on their school assignments and have begun to procrastinate a lot. They have been skipping classes and grades have started to slip. Activities and hobbies that used to interest them no longer have any appeal, and they end up spending most of their time alone in their room watching Netflix or playing video games. Maybe they are drinking or smoking more. They don’t want to tell their friends or family what’s going on, partly because they feel ashamed or embarrassed, and partly because they themselves don’t even know what’s going on. All they know is that they don’t feel right, and they don’t know what to do about it.

When I first mention the word “depression” to these students, they will frequently respond with, “I can’t be depressed! I don’t feel suicidal,” or “I thought depression was when you were sad and cried all the time.” I then try to explain to these students that depression can take many forms. Yes, it is true that for some people, depression is experienced as nonstop crying and suicidal ideation. For others however, it might mean a lack of motivation, an increased sense of apathy, isolating from friends and family, not wanting to engage in life. Depression can also include mood swings, feeling worthless, “checked out” or emotionally numb, and increased irritability or anger.

Depression can be caused by a number of factors: stressful life circumstances, big adjustments (e.g., starting college or starting a new relationship), lack of sun exposure, the recent death of a loved one, the loss of a significant relationship, excessive use of alcohol or marijuana, genetic predisposition and other biological factors, etc. People with marginalized identities who are subject to ongoing oppression and discrimination (e.g., LGBTQ, people of color, first generation in the US, etc.) are at a increased risk of depression.

Fortunately, depression, whether mild, moderate, or severe, can be treated! Therapy, increased activity, exposure to sunlight and Vitamin D supplements, a “happy lamp,” spending more time with friends, antidepressant medication, improved sleep habits, cutting back on substance use (particularly alcohol and marijuana), are all ways of improving one’s mood and reducing symptoms of depression.

Please remember that depression can effect anyone, anywhere, at any time. It is not a weakness, an excuse, or a choice. It is real — and it can be treated and get better.

Chandra Mundon, Psy.D.
Staff Psychologist

Seeking Balance: Thoughts from the Counseling Center Director

As I spent some time this weekend engaged in two very different activities – following news coverage of the presidential candidates in the days leading up to the New Hampshire primaries  . . . and watching the Super Bowl – I thought about how these two activities illustrate the importance of variety and balance in our lives. One activity (presidential races) tapped into intellectual and emotional aspects, while the other (Super Bowl) was more physical and emotional in nature. The presidential primary process gives us an opportunity to discuss and debate issues from multiple perspectives, while the Super Bowl provided an opportunity to watch two excellent and very different quarterbacks – one who is still early in his professional career and the other who is ending his career. Even though I am registered with one political party, I enjoy watching both party debates. While I was definitely rooting for one team to win the Super Bowl, I could appreciate the great plays made by both teams. Variety and balance.

The World Health Organization defines health (and mental health) as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being.” While “complete” well-being is an ambitious goal, the idea that we are healthy when our physical, mental, and social aspects are in sync is worth considering. Ensuring that we balance our intellectual and academic pursuits with fresh air and exercise, being curious and open to new ideas and experiences, developing meaningful relationships with a wide range of people, laughing and having fun, balancing work and play, and recognizing and expressing our emotions can lead to positive mental and physical health. Positive mental health allows us to cope with the challenges, disappointments, and stressful situations that you face in college and after graduation.

I encourage you to take advantage of the university environment to seek out a variety of experiences, ideas, and people. Try to create a healthy life by balancing study and fun, social time with alone time, and seriousness with silliness and laughter. Only one candidate will become president and only one quarterback won the Super Bowl. However, the candidates and quarterbacks with variety and balance in their lives will be the ones that bounce back successfully from their losses and continue to live meaningful and fulfilling lives that do not depend upon achieving one thing only.

Shelly Kerr, Ph.D.,
Director of the Counseling Center

What is the big deal about Mindfulness?

When I was an undergraduate, way back in the prehistoric past, I proposed a research paper on the effects of meditation. My instructor at the time told me that I could choose to write the paper, but no one in the psychology department would be interested in it.

Flash forward forty years, and now everywhere I turn another mindfulness group or research project is popping up. Interest in mindfulness got a big boost in in the 1980s when Marcia Linehan, a well-respected scholar and therapist, discovered that it aided clients who struggled with emotion regulation. (Emotion regulation is what keeps us from having a meltdown when our favorite restaurant is closed . . . or when our friend does not return our text within the next five minutes.)

The mind in its natural state can be like a 12-year-old ambling through a shopping mall, responding to the swirl of sights, smells and sounds. Look at those shoes – I bet they’d look good on me. Oh, smell that caramel corn – that would taste good. On second thought, I’d better wait for dinner. There’s my friend, Becca. Why doesn’t she look at me? Is she ignoring me?

Obviously, this is an oversimplification. Also, in a less busy cultures with less stimulation than ours, the mind in its natural state may be less volatile and more relaxed. I noticed this when traveling in parts of Southeast Asia, the calm presence of several people that I met there.

This brings up another point. Mindfulness probably runs against the grain of our culture. That’s because to be mindful invites us to withdraw our attention from the pandemonium of sensations and slow our thoughts down. In other words, we unhook from all the attempts to sway our impulses, our feelings and our thoughts — including our own thought patterns. We do this by giving the ongoing stream of sensations, thoughts and feelings a different kind of attention than usual.

Here is one definition of mindfulness that I like: the awareness that emerges through paying attention … in the present moment and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.

These are the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, who founded a world-renowned treatment program for chronic pain at a hospital in Boston. That points to the magic and mystery of it. Who would have thought that by changing the way we pay attention to our own inner experiences we could relieve pain from real physical conditions?

It may be easier to imagine that mindfulness can reduce our psychological pain. Today mindfulness is being used as a primary or adjunct treatment for such issues as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and even suicidal thoughts.

Paradoxically, one of the lessons of mindfulness is to accept emotional pain, to welcome it even. When we are being mindful we can experience emotional pain without all the extra baggage that usually is attached to it. For instance, you can feel hurt by a friend without immediately jumping to feeling unworthy, unloved . . . unlovable. This is because mindfulness creates some space around the feeling of hurt — a space in which you can bring compassion to the situation and your feelings and avoid what may be habitual patterns of self-criticism or self-rejection.

I don’t mean to suggest that mindfulness is a panacea for all that ails us. If that were the case, I and my colleagues would stop practicing others kinds of therapy and just teach mindfulness. But it can be a very useful method for creating a happy life, feeling centered and letting go of some of the burdens of the past.

Here are some Links to mindfulness and other meditation resources on campus:

Mark Evans, Ph.D.
Staff Psychologist

Awaken the Force

When I first watched the first Star Wars movie in 1977 I was excited by the idea that there are hidden powers that I could acquire if I set my mind to it. The idea that I could move matter and influence other people with my thoughts was very tantalizing indeed.

At the time, like most young viewers, I was particularly interested in the flashier parts of the Force. The kind that Obi Wan used to get past the imperial soldiers with the droids. And of course, the bit of lightsaber mayhem when Luke was threatened in the bar.

Over time my understanding of the Force has deepened and changed. While the Force and its ultimate source remains mysterious, I do feels its presence at times. Moments when I feel energy moving through me. Moments when I feel centered and connected to everything.

If you fancy yourself a Jedi warrior, here are some questions and thoughts that may guide you toward connecting with the Force and avoiding some of the shadow aspects of its power.

  • What makes you feel most alive? How much time do you spend engaging in this activity? What activities leave you feel depleted and/or full of regret? What activities give you a physical or emotional “hangover?”
  • What people empower you in your life? What people see and bring out the best in you? On the other hand, what people drag you down or undermine your self-confidence? (You can flip this around by asking: How do I bring out the best in other people? What do I do that drags others down?)
  • How do you recharge your batteries when you feel stressed or depleted? Do you make time for your own well-being? If not, why not?
  • Are you working on becoming the author of your own life? Or are you letting someone else write the story for you? When we follow someone else’s path rather than our own, we tend to feel bored, tired, burdened or confused. (This question is especially apropos if you plan to live in Western culture.)
  • Do you challenge yourself in directions in which you’d like to grow? Do you embrace new opportunities? Or do you tend to take the easy way out and then feel bored or disappointed? (This is tricky because if everything about your life seems challenging, it may be that you are on the wrong path. And those who have found their path early on may feel like life comes easier for them — not that they don’t work hard at their pursuits.)
  • Finally, how do you relate to the great mysteries of life? The mysteries of both the outer and the inner world. Don’t forget, there is a spiritual dimension to the Force. (Spiritual in the largest sense of the word – not necessarily religion.)

Every important choice that we make either enhances our connection to the Force — or diminishes it. Part of becoming Jedi is learning to pay attention to the effects of our actions — including on ourselves. Of course, sometimes we have to be knocked down a few times in order to figure out the right moves. And in the process of persisting through difficulty and failure we may gain resilience and self-knowledge and even arrive at wisdom.

May the Force Be With You!

Mark Evans, Ph.D.
Staff Psychologist

Going Home for the Holidays

If your family is anything like mine, returning home for holidays may feel like a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it can be a time to recharge from the stresses of school, be with loved ones and friends you may not have seen in a while, and perhaps even enjoy some home-cooked food. On the other hand, you may also find yourself fielding questions you’d rather not be asked (“So, what are you planning to do after you graduate?”) or getting caught up in those recurrent squabbles you thought you’d left behind you when you went off to college.

Even if your family is that rare gem, free of some of the challenges mentioned above, there are many reasons breaks may be difficult for everyone involved. For example, now that you’re used to the level of independence you’ve had while at college, you may expect the same control over your day-to-day activities back home. Meanwhile, your parents may expect you to return to the same rules and routines you had during high school. I’ll leave it to your imagination to conjure up the many exciting scenarios that can result from this collision of perspectives.

In fact, your and your family’s ideas may differ significantly on any number of issues related to your return home, such as the amount of time you’ll be spending with them versus visiting friends; how much to discuss potentially loaded topics, such as grades or choice of major; or the new pecking order any siblings still living at home may have worked out after you left for college. Add to that the exhaustion and stress from which you may be recovering after your final exams and projects – as well as the holiday stress than can arise – and you can see how tensions may run high.

Here are a few tips that may help minimize the stress and enhance your time at home:

  • Consider having a conversation with your family about how things may have changed for all of you since your departure for college, as well as your expectations during the break. That way, even if there are differences in your expectations, you can negotiate something that works for all of you.
  • It may help to let your family know in advance about your plans for the break (e.g., if you are splitting time between various family members/between family and friends, be clear about where you’ll be and when). Be open to compromise and remember that if your family reacts strongly to hearing that you won’t be hanging out with them 24/7, this may be because they’ve missed you and want to spend time with you. Including them as you make plans may actually help them better handle your time away.
  • Think about letting your family know about any “sore spots” (e.g., grades) and setting up explicit times during which these are open for discussion (or, for that matter, off-limits). This way, you are setting ground rules that allow everyone to relax and enjoy your time at home while still addressing any potential elephants in the room.
  •  It always can help to learn and practice using non-defensive language when you see old, problematic patterns emerging — patterns like arguing, apologizing when you didn’t do anything wrong, explaining when explanations aren’t helpful. Some examples of non-defensive responses include, “That’s interesting,” “Let me think about that,” “Why don’t we talk about this when you’re not so upset?” and “I’m sorry that you’re hurt/upset/disappointed/don’t approve.” Saying that you are sorry that someone’s feelings were hurt is different from apologizing for your behavior. These strategies can allow you to “unhook” from old communication patterns and avoid contributing to escalation.
  • If home has never been a happy place and being there promises to be more painful and complicated than restful, consider spending your break with a friend’s family. If you have to return home, you may be able to plan visits with friends, volunteer opportunities, or other activities that will permit you to step away for a day or two and restore balance.

Hopefully, these suggestions can help you start addressing potential hitches in your visit home. That way, your focus can remain on the fun and joyful parts of that experience. Taking time to relax, reconnecting with those you love, and of course, the food.

Susie Musch, Ph.D.
Staff Psychologist