It’s finally January, meaning that you’re well into winter break. No exams, no sleepless nights, no waking up at the crack of dawn. This is your opportunity to relax and recuperate, so take advantage of your time off to treat your brain to some much-needed rest.
The problem for some of us is figuring out exactly how to do that. Having recently ended the semester, you’re probably accustomed to dedicating your time to academics with laser focus. After three months of working your way to the breaking point, you might be tempted to shut down, binge-watch Netflix, and delay thinking about the spring semester until right before it hits.
Instead, check out these 5 quick tips to recover from stress and mentally prepare for the rest of the school year.
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The importance of rest and recovery
While college is prime time for students to joke about how depressed they are, or how anxious they feel about an upcoming exam, the truth is that taking steps to ease chronic stress can have both short-term and long-lasting effects. Berkeley News reported on a UC Berkeley study stating that “researchers have shown that chronic stress generates long-term changes in the brain that may explain why people suffering chronic stress are prone to mental problems such as anxiety and mood disorders later in life.” Some of the brain changes observed in the study could also explain how chronic stress impacts learning and memory. So perhaps using your winter break to dial down your stress can help you out not just next semester but far into your future.
1. Get moving on your New Year’s resolution
During the school year, it’s easy to be drawn into the habit of not moving during seven hours of study. Take advantage of your time off and make exercising, or at least moving around, a priority. Exercise is, after all, a great step toward a healthier lifestyle, and it can prime you to better deal with stress in the coming months.
According to a Mayo Clinic article on depression and anxiety, regular exercise may help ease both conditions by releasing feel-good brain chemicals that strengthen our sense of well-being and help us downplay worries and negative thoughts.
Take advantage of your time off from school to explore your exercise options and find a routine that works for you. Look for inspiration from fitness YouTubers (some great examples are certified personal trainers Daniel and Kelli Segars on Fitness Blender). Or try some new types of classes at a local gym. You may be able to get a free pass for one class, or even one week, if you know a current member. Try to find something now that you can keep doing on campus in the spring.
2. Vent anxiety, embrace gratitude
During the semester, did you ever feel overwhelmed by stress but find that you couldn’t vent your anxiety because you were stuck in the silent void of the library? Rather than suppressing your feelings, start to write them down.
According to Sian Beilock, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, writing down your anxieties can free up brainpower for testing and studying. During your time off from school, train yourself to put your thoughts on paper whenever you feel stressed or overwhelmed.
While we’re at it, don’t just focus on the negative emotions; the positive ones deserve your attention, too. Take some time now to focus on the things you’re grateful for.
A study of the role of gratitude in health, conducted by the University of California San Diego’s School of Medicine, found that people who kept a gratitude journal had stress hormone levels 23% lower than those of non-journaling participants.
Every morning, write down three things you’re grateful for. You’ll start your day on a more positive note, and build the foundation for a healthier mindset, too.
3. Rethink your definition of comfort foods
During stressful times, we tend to reach for the foods that bring us comfort, which can range from store-bought pizza to homemade mac ’n’ cheese. However, according to a CNN article on superfoods versus comfort foods, it’s the former that truly make us feel better in the long run. In an interview with Dr. Pete Sulack, author of Unhealthy Anonymous, CNN reported that “superfoods nourish and detoxify, and in this way they combat stress.”
Kate Brookie, a PhD candidate studying nutritional psychology at the University of Otago in New Zealand, added, “Whole foods, especially fruit and vegetables, provide your brain with the nutrients necessary for key processes involved in mood and well-being.”
So next time you feel your stomach growling, replace those greasy fried foods with healthy snacks.
Not sure what to try? When you’re tired of applying for internships, take a break to research quick, nutritious, college-friendly recipes you can make during the upcoming semester.
4. Start carrying a water bottle
Remember when your parents told you to drink more water? Well, they had a point. According to a hydration and health study conducted by the University of North Carolina, mild dehydration can adversely affect concentration, alertness, and short-term memory in young adults.
The beginning of the new year is already in your rearview mirror. If you never got around to making new year’s resolutions, make “drinking enough water” your daily goal. Most experts recommend that you take in 2 liters of water daily. To achieve this goal, carry a reusable water bottle so you always have a beverage on hand. You can also try drinking a cup of water before every meal or whenever hunger pangs hit. Sometimes when you feel hungry, your body may actually be thirsty.
Get in the habit now, and you won’t think twice about taking water to class with you when the semester starts up again. Cell phone? Check. Water bottle? Check. Brainpower? Check.
5. Get your sleep habits in sync
Now that you’re not bogged down by a slew of 8 a.m.’s, you can finally treat yourself to a full night’s sleep. Experts at the National Sleep Foundation recommend that young adults get seven to nine hours of sleep per night.
When you don’t get an adequate amount of sleep, you accumulate a “sleep debt,” which must be repaid to avoid negative consequences. As time goes on, however, a person’s sleep debt will accumulate and eventually become nearly impossible to repay. Instead of staying up late watching Netflix during winter break, catch a few extra hours of sleep to gradually pay off your sleep debt — your mind and body will thank you.
One last note: It may be tempting to sleep in during break, but if you’re facing a schedule of early classes in spring, get in the habit of waking up when you would during the semester. This practice will get your internal clock ready for the weeks ahead.