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Handle Your Holiday Stress

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It's holiday time! Time for fun, festivities, and stress! Stress? But the holidays are a happy time of year. Why would anyone feel stressed? College and graduate students are sure to feel stressed as the holiday season rolls around. Why? Maybe because finals are looming and you've got several papers due? You're scheduled to take the GRE next week and your applications are almost due. You're getting ready to go home for the holidays, and have a ton of holiday shopping to do with no money. Whew! No wonder you're stressed! Here's what you can do about it:

Recognize the Signs of Stress
You know when you're stressed, right? Just remember that the signs are more pervasive than you think! Usually when we think of stress symptoms, we think of high blood pressure, elevated heart rate, overeating, and sweating too much. Signs of stress also include irritability, insomnia, anxiety, headaches, indigestion, muscle tension, and jitteriness. All of these can interfere with your holiday fun.

Learn How to Relax
Easier said than done, you say? Take the time to learn relaxation techniques, as they'll help you all throughout grad school and the rest of your life. For example, practice the relaxation response, a form of meditation.

Find a quiet environment (a room at home, school, the library) where you can be alone without distractions. Get into a comfortable position, preferably with your spine straight. Try sitting down cross-legged or in the lotus position. Don't lie down or you might fall asleep! During the relaxation session, focus your concentration on an object, word, or phrase. This is your point of focus. Begin to breathe deeply and slowly. Inhale through your nose. As you exhale through your mouth, repeat your chosen word or phrase. Concentrate on your point of focus and don't worry about your thought processes. It is difficult to eliminate distracting thoughts, but instead concentrate on your point of focus. Try not to dwell on your distracting thoughts; let them slip away. Continue for 10 to 20 minutes and you'll feel more relaxed and at peace. You can adapt this approach to relax anytime, anywhere. While you're standing in line waiting to pay for gifts, for example, close your eyes and breathe deeply.

Be Realistic
When you begin to feel tense and overwhelmed, stop what your doing and try to look at your situation from a fresh perspective. Ask yourself, "Why am I feeling this way? If this task doesn't get done, what's the worst thing that can happen? What is the absolute minimum that I need to do to complete this task?" Be realistic. Every assignment does not have to be perfect. If your assignment isn't perfect, is it really the end of the world? A year from now, will it be important? All too often we get stressed out over everyday things whose consequences are minimal. Try to look at the "big picture." We often forget the big picture around the holidays, ironically enough. Does your family member really need that gift? What will happen if you don't go out of your way and make cookies in your usual holiday tradition?

Use Time Management Strategies
Another way to take control is to get more done by using your time more effectively.

  • Make use of wasted time. Carry pocket work, something that you can do while waiting. Whether it's reading for the train, or flash cards to study. Ten minutes here, fifteen there; it adds up. Plus, cognitive psychology and memory research has shown that we can recall more information if we work and study in short periods rather than long ones, so you just might learn more! Use waiting times as thinking times. Remember this as you wait in traffic, a long checkout line, and flight delays.
  • Use a "to-do" list. Write in all your assignments, chores (like laundry!), and other tasks (e.g., holiday shopping). Prioritize the items. When is that paper due? Is it high priority? Place all high priority tasks first. Regularly stop and ask yourself, "what is the best use of my time right now? What needs to get done now?" Do that task.
  • Schedule time for breaks. You can't study for an exam or write a paper if you're fried. Take a 15-20 minute break every once in a while to stretch your legs, get something to eat, or play a video game. Go for a short walk; the exercise will wake you up and sharpen your thinking. Plus a quiet walk is like meditation. It gives you a chance to work out problems, think, or just veg-out.
Holiday time coincides with finals. Obviously it's stressful, but it's also a wonderful time of year. Take steps to enjoy this time by controlling what you can (your own reactions and behavior) and managing your stress.

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