Understanding Mental Health Triggers

trigger is a stimulus that elicits a reaction. In the context of mental illness, “trigger” is often used to mean something that brings on or worsens symptoms. This often happens to people with a history of trauma or who are recovering from mental illness, self-harm, addiction, and/or eating disorders. When someone has a history of any of these issues, being unexpectedly exposed to imagery or content that deals with that history can cause harm or relapse.

Many different stimuli can be possible triggers, and they are often strongly influenced by past experiences.

Understanding, identifying, and working to prevent triggers can be empowering and effective, especially in comparison to supporting someone after they have been triggered.

Understanding Triggers

Triggers vary widely from person to person. Many different stimuli can be possible triggers, and they are often strongly influenced by past experiences.

  • External triggers: Think senses – sounds, sights, smells, textures that elicit responses based on past experiences. Example: Smelling the cologne that was worn by a loved one who has passed away can trigger grief.
  • Internal triggers: Strong feelings that arise based on past experiences. Example: Making a doctor’s appointment after a negative medical experience can trigger fear.
  • Trauma triggers: Strong feelings that arise based on past trauma. Example: The sound of firecrackers can be trauma triggers for veterans of war.
  • Symptom triggers: A physical change can trigger larger mental health issues. Example: A lack of sleep could trigger symptoms of bipolar disorder.

For some, a trigger might cause a physical response – heavy breathing, sweating, crying. For some, a trigger can elicit an emotional reaction, like thinking “I am being attacked.” For some, a trigger can cause harm or a relapse.

After experiencing a trigger, a person may have big, negative feelings – overwhelm, powerlessness, fear, etc. These feelings can be detrimental to mental health and are often a challenge to effectively address after they arise.

The behavior that emerges after a trigger can range from relatively minimal (crying) to serious (acts of violence). Someone exposed to a trigger may experience impaired judgment or awareness.

Ways to Help Someone Who Gets Triggered

  • Be curious. Learn to engage in difficult situations with a focus on maintaining a positive relationship. Learn what is triggering for those around you, and try to avoid causing pain. Remember to respect an individual’s right to not share, or share on their own timeline.
  • Be empathetic and listen without judgment. Be a safe space for those around you. Avoid taking another’s behavior personally nor making negative judgments about someone’s feelings and behavior.
  • Maintain good boundaries. Boundaries help everyone be clear on expectations, which adds security and predictability.
  • Help with coping. Ask about strategies that work for the person to relax and take care of themselves. Encourage more time spent on self-care activities.
  • Use trigger warnings if you develop content. Providing a warning before potentially triggering content provides time for people to prepare or if needed, to opt-out of challenging or emotional materials.

Coping Strategies for Those Who Get Triggered

There are many possible coping strategies you can try, but all should focus on reducing the impact of the trigger and the strength of emotional reactions.

Trial and error can help each person determine what works best for them. Remember that different coping strategies may work for different triggers and emotions.

  • Learn to identify: Consider reactions to past triggers; who or what was involved, where, when, and why it took place. Observe patterns and obvious signs of risk to prevent a similar situation.
  • Make a plan to address: Create a plan to address triggers and emotional reactions. You may want to talk to loved ones or your treatment team to let them know how they can best help you when you are triggered. Be sure to carefully address triggers that occur repeatedly, because each time they do, the emotional reaction may be greater.
  • Try problem-focused coping: Confront your stressor directly or try to find a solution to the stressor. For example, commuting past a hospital may cause you to remember traumas from the hospital. You could find another commuting route.
  • Try emotion-focused coping: When you cannot eliminate or avoid a trigger, focus on regulating your reaction to a stressor which may help reduce the stressor’s impact. For example, meditation can help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.
  • Communicate if someone is triggering you: A person triggering another person is often unintentional. Talk to them about the impact of their actions to clear up any misunderstandings and consider possible solutions. Have an open, calm, and understanding dialog. Be willing to work with them. If the person who is triggering you refuses to act sensitively, it may be best to set clear boundaries.
  • Find the right therapy: Specific types of therapy have been shown effective in addressing triggers such as exposure therapy and EMDR therapy. Support groups can also help the person feel less alone.
  • Reality-check your thoughts: To minimize the escalation of thoughts and feelings, it may be helpful to “reality check” thoughts to assess their reasonableness. A few ways to do this include:
    1. Check facts: What is undisputably true and do the facts support your interpretation.
    2. Consider cognitive distortions: Identify faulty or inaccurate thinking, perceptions or beliefs.
    3. Reframe: Reshape automatic negative thoughts into positive thoughts.
    4. Proportionality: Ask yourself, is the reaction disproportionate to the trigger?
  • Look for trigger warnings: Triggers warnings can help alert you to triggering material, especially materials related to suicide or violence. Sometimes, an article will provide a trigger warning at the start of the piece. You can even ask others to provide you with a trigger warning about materials they share.
  • Practice self-care: Prioritizing your mental health can help build resilience against potential triggers. You can start by talking to someone, such as a loved one, friend, or therapist. You may also want to practice mindfulness, meditation, deep breathing, or journaling.

While it can be difficult to control triggers, those who experience them can learn from past experiences, apply what they learn, and limit the risk of being re-triggered. Avoid only focusing on what happens after a trigger; also focus on what can be done beforehand.

Each time a person is triggered is a learning opportunity that can help manage reactions in the future. If a person can’t control the trigger fully, they may be able to limit the emotional reaction to it before it becomes problematic and harder to address. They might even be able to prevent the trigger by preparing for it. There is always have something you can control. Anything that offers a little control over mental illness can help keep us well.

Adapted from NAMI Blog by Katherine Ponte

Healthy Study Habits

During a pandemic, with the winter weather disruptions of late, and the near-constant tensions in current events, none of us can be as productive as usual. The strategies below can help us be efficiently productive to allow time for self-care. 

Study is a Marathon, not a Sprint

Time is our most limited resource. If you’re feeling exhausted but still don’t have time for all of your work, make a change. Pause, evaluate how you’re spending your time, and find solutions to help you work less but accomplish more. It’s possible.

Winter snow scene on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, January 22, 2022. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Self-Care is an Academic Responsibility

Hobbies, physical movement, and rest are critical to your studies. Self-care helps your mind and body be ready to focus, write, memorize and perform. Sleeping enough, seeing friends, cooking food, playing sports, finding fun – these activities genuinely help you produce better work. Learn which leisure activities are helpful and which only provide the illusion of rest and recovery. If you ever feel pressured to skip self-care, remember self-care is a responsibility, not an indulgence.

Watch for the Short-Term Task Trap

Academics require balancing three things: short-term tasks, long-term tasks, and self-care. Short-term tasks (due tomorrow, due this week, waiting for a replay) have the most visible deadlines, which push us to prioritize them. Alternatively, long-term tasks (writing a thesis, finishing a paper) and self-care activities (sleep, rest, play, movement) are much more important, but there is little consequence to letting time slip by without working on them. This makes it easy to start skipping on self-care or long-term projects. Fight to keep short-term tasks from taking over. Accountability helps.

  • Create your own deadlines and rules, like “3 pages by X date” or  “Go for a jog M/W/F” or “Meal with a friend 2x per week.”
  • Reserve times exclusively for long-term tasks or self-care. Never let short-term tasks violate those protected hours, even if that means leaving someone waiting.

There are More Things Worth Doing Than Anyone Can Do

When deciding whether or not to take on a new task or project, ask yourself “Is this more worth doing than the thing I will have to give up to do it?” Anything you add means less time for something else. Consider what you’ll be giving up and whether losing that will be worth it. You might wait 24 hours before saying “yes” to something new to give time for reflection.

College Pushes Us in Many Directions

University culture pushes us to ask a lot of ourselves – as a student, friend, intellectual, agent of change, and more. No one can give outstanding effort in so many directions at once. Focus on the aspects of college that are most important for you personally to give your all. 

Reach out for help if you need it.

There are many support structures to help you at UNC-Chapel Hill to help you balance academic demands – advisors, learning center coacheswellbeing coachesCAPS, and more. Reach out for help! 

Adapted from Healthy Work Habits by Ada Palmer

SNOW Much To Do!

With winter storms, snow and ice on campus and more possible in the forecast for the Chapel Hill area,  you can help yourself be prepared to ease stress and avoid crowded stores and lines for essentials. Below are some tips for staying safe and well during winter weather.
Snow falls near the Bell Tower on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on January 16, 2022. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill

Prepare:

  • Plan for power outages: Have a flashlight or battery-powered light in case you lose power. Find and make available extra blankets and jackets to stay warm. Charge your phone and any external chargers to stay in communication if the power lapses.
  • Pick up snacks & bottled water. Avoid feeling like you need to “stock up”  last minute by having non-perishable items and water on hand. Grab a couple of food items you can eat if you lose electricity. Check out the Carolina Cupboard Pantry on campus if you need help accessing groceries 
  • Be aware of assignments and deadlines: Snow days are easier to enjoy by sledding, reading, and cozying up inside. Avoid additional stress by knowing what schoolwork needs to be saved, uploaded, or completed before the weather hits.
  • Bundle up when you go out:  Add layers including gloves, socks, and hats. Footwear with good traction, such as hiking boots & tennis shoes with sturdy soles, can help prevent an unwarranted tumble.
  • Play! Snow turns the whole world into a playground. Trash bags and shower curtains make great improvised sleds. Have a snowball fight. Make a creative snow sculpture. Play snow sports. Get out there and enjoy the rare snows when they happen!
Snow falls on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on January 16, 2022. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Travel Strategies:

  • Avoid unnecessary travel in winter weather. 
  • Keep an eye on the forecast to help prepare if the forecast changes. 
  • Use your best judgment. Recognize your comfort in snow and ice conditions. Stick to what feels safe for you.
  • Listen to the experts. Local officials send advisory, and up-to-date precautions based on conditions and public works teams.  Follow the local experts at; Alert CarolinaTown of Chapel HillTown of CarrboroOrange County Closures & Delays
  • If you have to drive: Plan ahead. Driving in bad weather usually takes longer and is more stressful. Drive slowly. Leave Room In front in case you need to use your brakes and the road is icy. Use your low beams in fog and heavy snow, or avoid driving in dark hours altogether. Buckle up!

Let the spring semester…begin.

Winter campus scene on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. January 6, 2022. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Starting a new semester amidst the Omicron wave can bring up some feelings. When things feel uncertain or when we don’t generally feel safe, it’s normal to feel stressed. This very reaction, while there to protect us, can cause all sorts of havoc when there is a sense of uncertainty and conflicting information around us.

But we aren’t helpless. We can choose our response. If you are struggling, here are some things you can do:

Notice

What’s coming up for you right now? Name it to tame it. What feelings are arising in you?
Consider how you’re processing. How are you holding on or letting go of your feelings?

Take Care of Yourself

What helps you stay balanced? Consider spending time outside, talking with people you love, staying in the present through meditation or mindfulness practices. Eat food that nourishes you. Do things that bring you joy. Take a step to move you closer to a goal.

Control what’s within your control

We can’t force the people around us to do exactly what we want. What can you control about your own situation that might bring you relief? Consider:

Have a Plan

While none of us want to plan for getting COVID-19, having a plan can help you feel more in control. Know what you’ll do if you start having symptoms or find out you’ve been in close contact with someone who tested positive. 

If you’re having symptoms

  • Isolate. Stay home except for food and medical care and wear a medical-grade mask when you can’t avoid being around other people. 
  • Consider getting tested. 
    • Symptomatic testing without an appointment is available at Campus Health Monday – Friday from noon – 4 pm.
    • You can schedule an appointment for a full medical visit to address your symptoms at Campus Health by scheduling online or calling 919-966-2281.

If you’ve been exposed to COVID-19 but aren’t having symptoms, quarantine. 

CDC guidance is copied below or available online.

If you test positive – isolate.

Students who test positive must isolate until they meet the criteria for ending isolation: 5 days from onset of symptoms or day of the positive test, as well as no fever or symptoms for 24 hours.

After isolation ends, you can resume activities such as returning to campus but must still wear a mask around others for 5 additional days. 

You cannot test out of isolation. A negative result does not override the positive result. A positive result after 5 days does not mean you need to continue to isolate – unless you’re still having symptoms. Please avoid retesting (particularly due to limited test supplies!). 

Reach out for help if you need it.

If you’re feeling stuck – reach. Connect with trusted advisors, loved ones, or a mental health care provider. We are in this together and there are places to get help if you need it. 
CAPS is available 24/7 – by coming for services during business hours or calling after hours 919-966-3658. 
You can also reach out to The Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741 or National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.

You Have Not lived as Long as You are Meant to Live

*Content Warning: The below memoir contains content and conversations around suicide. In honor of raising awareness for suicide prevention week, please read as feels appropriate for your individual needs.

Subtitle: An open letter to my younger self in honor of Suicide Prevention Week

I first remember considering suicide when I was 11 years old. Flash forward two years, and 13-year-old me was sitting in my school social worker’s office pouring out my heart, asking for help.

My parents took me to a therapist and a psychiatrist. It took 6 years throughout high school and most of college in therapy, inpatient, relapse, repeat, followed by 3 years of active recovery to get to where I am now. Recently, I have been doing a lot of reflecting on my recovery as I am in this relatively newfound phase of stability. During my reflection, I wrote the below letter to my younger self:

My dear younger self,

You are alive.

I bet you’re wondering, ‘how did I make it that far?’

The answer is that I’m not entirely sure. My desire to escape for a moment, to shut out the pain, to die turned into my desire to live so gradually that I almost didn’t notice when it happened.

I know you’re wondering if the feelings you are having now will ever go away. I can’t lie to you and say that you never think about suicide sometimes because you do. But these days the thoughts of suicide are rare, fleeting, and easily ignored.

I’m sorry. I’m sorry that life feels so heavy sometimes that you don’t want to see it the next day. I’m sorry for how tired and hurt you are and I’m sorry for all the times when you don’t even feel the hurt anymore and how scary that is.

I want to give you permission to have darkness. You are not broken because you have darkness. You are not flawed because you are lonely or scared.

But can I ask you to do something for me? Can you tell someone how you’re feeling? Your therapist, or your mom, or your brother, or your friend, or your teacher, or your coach. Tell them so that they can share in this loneliness with you. Tell them so that they can be there for you. I know you are scared, but when you do tell them… they help you.

The best thing we ever did was ask for help. Our healing started once we were willing to be honest with yourself and those who care about us when we were struggling so that they could help us.

I know you dream of a day when you are ‘healed.’ But I’m here to tell you that is not how healing works. Healing is not linear, and it is not finite. So, here is the truth: I am not healed, but I am healing. I am in a newly reached sort of remission. I still struggle. I go to counseling. I take medications. I try to do things that make me happy. And most of those things work, most of the time.

I am not sure that everything happens for a reason, but I do know that you were meant to live through those days that felt unlivable. This life is yours to grow in, to heal in, and to be alive in.

So, here’s our story: we’re still in the middle of it. But we are alive and want to be alive. And now, you, me… we’re a more alive version of us than I have ever seen.

I have you to thank for my life. Because my dear self, you know that you have not yet lived as long as you are meant to live.

If you or a loved one needs help, here are some resources:

National Urgent Concern Resources

 Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Connect 24/7 to a crisis counselor by texting the Crisis Text Line Text HOME to 741741.

*For severe or potentially life-threatening medical or mental health emergencies, call 911, go to a local hospital emergency room, or call campus police at 919-962-8100.

UNC Non-Emergency Campus Resources 

Contact Counseling and Psychological Services at UNC:

  • Call the 24/7 phone line: 919-966-3658
  • For non-emergencies, email  caps@unc.edu with general questions

LGBTQ Center: lgbtq@unc.edu, (919) 843-5376

Student Wellness: studentwellness@unc.edu , (919) 962-9355

Holiday Eating

Winter break and the holidays usually mean a change in routine. For many of us, the changes come as a welcome reprieve from the pace of the semester. And for some of us, when routines change, anxiety increases – especially considering the additional stressors of financial constraints, relationship worries, travel plans, obligatory events, and holiday meals. For a broad look at strategies to minimize holiday stress, read Managing Wellbeing During the Holidays. In that article, we suggest for readers to: “Focus on food flexibility. Remember that all foods (yes, all foods!) have nutrition to offer. Savor the holiday flavors!” This tip comes from intuitive eating practices, which are centered around trusting your inner body’s wisdom to make choices around food that feel good in your body, without judgment. This mindset allows eating to be intuitive, imperfect, free from food rules, and nourishing for the brain, body, and soul.

Intuitive eating is a focus on reconnecting with our body’s hunger and fullness cues and understanding some of the emotional and behavioral reasons for why we eat.

Intuitive eating is comprised of 10 principles, all centered around freeing yourself from the restrictions we put on ourselves surrounding food and trusting our bodies.

By practicing intuitive eating, you allow yourself to enjoy all of the holiday foods you desire without going overboard or feeling out of control when it comes to food. Some tips for intuitive eating:

Savor your food

  • When you eat, do so mindfully and with intention.
  • Allow yourself to experience food wholly and completely, without judgment.
  • Observe how your body feels when eating holiday foods and how satisfying it is to your taste buds.
  • Excite your palate with multiple flavors and different textures.
  • Savor the sensations of food – taste, texture, aroma, appearance, and temperature.
  • Consider “what sounds good to me right now?”
  • Give yourself permission to seek and feel pleasure in your food.
  • Practice gratitude for the food that is nourishing you.

Practice flexibility

  • Our bodies thrive when we eat a variety of foods.
  • Food is more than fuel – it’s also a way to bring those we love together and connect with them.
  • Practice gratitude for the relationships that you’re building this holiday season.

Embrace your intuition

  • Bring extra awareness to body cues and intuition.
  • Listen for and honor your feelings of hunger, fullness, and satisfaction.
  • Listen to and honor body sensations that indicate or signal hunger. This could include growling stomach, slight headache, inability to focus, lack of energy, thoughts drifting toward food.
  • As soon as you notice biological hunger, make time to eat a food or snack that is physically and psychologically satisfying.
  • Slow down food consumption so you can notice how your body feels as you eat.
  • When you notice feelings of satifaction or satiation, stop eating. Eat again when you feel hunger or after 2-3 hours have passed. Help your body remember that you will regularly feed it!
  • Practice gratitude for the wisdom your body holds.

Give yourself unconditional permission to eat

  • Eat the foods you enjoy without shame or judgment. There’s room for all the foods!
  • Put all foods on the same playing field. If we can approach all foods as emotionally equal, we can begin to connect with our own inner wisdom. Make turkey emotionally equivalent to pumpkin pie or fruits equivalent to chocolates.
  • Give yourself unconditional permission to eat what you enjoy and eat until you’re satisfied or feel full.
  • Practice gratitude for making peace with food.

Managing Wellbeing during the Holidays

The holiday season often provides an opportunity to be with family and other loved ones, while ushering us towards parties, gift-giving, eating out, and other celebratory events. This seasonal whirlwind can also bring up challenges such as unwelcome guests, financial strain, stress, loneliness, anxiety, and depression. A 2021 CDC report found that the anxiety and depression levels for adults aged 18-29 have doubled compared to 2020. This is most likely due to the long-lasting effects of the pandemic. The virus is still present and active, and the Omicron variant adds extra concerns as we enter the season.

With some slight shifts in your behavior, you may be able to minimize your stress, while creating a supportive environment that centers on wellbeing.

Students decorated gingerbread houses at the Carolina Union Great Hall on the last day of classes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Tips to Manage Holiday Stress

Be realistic.

The holidays are rarely “perfect” and that means being flexible and realistic with our time, energy, and expectations. At times, family members and/or holiday time can be trigger memories of past unpleasant experiences or trauma. Communicate your needs and set healthy boundaries with family and friends, especially around COVID-19 risk mitigation. Virtual gatherings can be different, but they can also provide an opportunity for creativity as well as connections across distance. Even though your holiday plans may look different this year, you can find ways to celebrate.

Acknowledge your feelings.

Many of us have experienced loss over the last two years and many more of us are grieving a loss from some time ago. It’s ok to feel sad, and crying or expressing that sadness is normal, especially during the holidays. Give yourself permission to feel your feelings and do not hesitate to ask those you’re closest to for support. 

Reach out.

As previously stated, reach out to your friends, family, and community. Human connection matters and isolation can cause us to forget the power of sharing time with others. Utilize social media, meet-ups, and other social events (safely) to make new friends or be reacquainted with friends from your past.

Set aside differences.

It can be easy to politicize current events. Try to practice a pause. Listen with empathy and pause before commenting while thinking to yourself, “Is this statement based on fact or opinion, and do I have the energy to discuss it with compassion?”. Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. Be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are they’re feeling the effects of holiday stress and need some grace or space to pause and process. Also, if it’s best for you to limit interactions with specific individuals around this time, know that it is acceptable to prioritize your care during a challenging time.

Stick to a budget.

Before you do your gift-giving and food shopping, decide how much money you can afford to spend. Then stick to your budget! Look for ways to share costs with family and friends. Remember that time together or sharing experiences is the best gift we can give.

Plan ahead.

Plan, plan, plan! Having a plan minimizes stress and allows you to share work with others. This is not the time to “do everything.” Set aside specific days for shopping, baking, connecting with friends, and other activities. Schedule downtime so you are able to rest, relax, and restore. Consider whether you can shop online for any of your items. Do not be afraid to ask for support. Asking for support is a continuous and integral theme to holiday self-care.

Practice self-compassion.

As we all do our best to continue navigating a global pandemic while engaging with each other during this season it is imperative that we find kindness and compassion for ourselves. This will also help extend these same virtues to others during this time. Uncertainty and stress are difficult for everyone.

Consider these questions when beginning a self-compassion practice:

  • How am I feeling right now?
  • What does my self-talk sound like?
  • Is this self-talk something that I would say to support a small child or good friend?

Try these phrases to exercise self-compassion:

  • I am doing the best that I can right now, and that is enough.
  • This is a difficult time. It is natural to feel stressed. I am here for you.
  • I am safe and supported.

Say NO.

Saying yes when you should say no can leave you feeling resentful and overwhelmed. Friends, family, and co-workers will understand if you can’t participate in every activity or project. Saying no is a complete sentence and requires practice in self-compassion, self-preservation, and self-love.

Don’t disregard healthy habits.

In our current climate, wellbeing may or may not be top of mind. Center your wellbeing and engage in activities that boost your mood and enhance your health. These strategies make us more resilient and may improve our outlook.

Try these suggestions:

  • Have gratitude and share it, let others know you’re grateful for them.
  • Imagine the best case scenario and believe it’s possible.
  • Keep a gratitude journal (write down three things you’re thankful for, daily).
  • Give to yourself and forgive yourself.
  • Volunteer.
  • Give others the benefit of the doubt (don’t assume, ask).
  • Choose positivity.
  • Focus on food flexibility. Remember that all foods (yes, all foods!) have nutrition to offer. Savor the holiday flavors!
  • Get plenty of sleep.
  • Include regular movement in your daily routine.
  • Practice deep-breathing exercises, meditation or yoga.
  • Avoid excessive tobacco, alcohol and drug use.
  • Adjust the time you spend reading the news and engaging with social media.

Take a break.

Take some time to relax and be still to reset for the day or wind down at night. It also can be part of the midday recalibration. Use an app for a 5-minute meditation, or just sit quietly with or without soft music. During your quiet time, it’s also nice to replay moments of gratitude.

Seek professional help if you need it.

Caring for your health means both daily personal choices and support from professionals. Some people benefit from regular check-ins with a medical or mental health provider. Others reach out when problems persist. If you’re finding yourself experiencing physical pain, unable to sleep, unable to face routine chores, feeling sad, irritable, or hopeless – and especially if these feelings last for 2 weeks or more – talk to your doctor or mental health professional.

Take control!

Plan for and manage holiday time instead of allowing the season to manage you. Take steps to minimize the stress, anxiousness, and depression that can be amplified during the holidays. Learn to recognize your holiday triggers, such as financial pressures or personal demands, so you can reduce their impact. With a little planning and some positive thinking, you can find peace and joy during the holidays.

Other Resources:

Written by Charla Blumell, Assistant Director of UNC Student Wellness leaning on content from the Mayo Clinic, CDC and UNC-Chapel Hill Office of Student Wellness.

Financial Wellness in the Holiday Season


Regardless of what holidays we choose to celebrate, November and December can be rough on budgets, especially for college students. Between travel expenses, winter break plans, going out with friends to celebrate the end of the semester, and buying gifts, we often quickly spend much more money than we may have planned. 

Remember to prioritize your financial wellness, which involves setting and achieving both long and short-term personal financial goals. Everyone’s financial status and goals are different, depending on income, wealth, spending, debt, values, etc., and are situated within our society’s financial and economic context. Before rushing into the holiday season, take some time to think about your own finances. How much do you have to spend? How much do you need to save? What are the most important things for you to spend money on or save money for?

Here are some ideas to keep your budget happy this season!

  1. Practice mindfulness. Being mindful means paying attention to what you are doing, noticing your thoughts, sensations, and the world around you without judgment. Research shows that mindfulness can actually help you make better decisions.
  2. Set a budget. What’s important to you? What are you going to need/want money for? Decide what you are able to afford based on your priorities and values, and then stick to it. Check out this list of apps for budgeting tools.
  3. Make a list and check it twice. This will help you stay focused on what you need and avoid purchasing on impulse. Check out these strategies to avoid impulse purchases!
  4. Try DIY or repurposed gifts! Homemade gifts are wonderful both for your budget and for adding that personal touch to let your family and friends know how much you care. Need some inspiration? Here are some DIY gift ideas.
  5. Give of your time. Some of the best gifts are things you can do for or with another person. For those of us that are craft-challenged, here are some great alternatives.
  6. Host a potluck. If you want to get together with friends, consider having a potluck instead of going out for an expensive meal. This way, you don’t have to get everyone to agree on a restaurant, and you’ll spend a lot less. 
  7. Be careful with credit card purchases. Having a credit card can be great for building credit, but it’s especially important during this time of the year to make sure we’re able to pay off the card on time at the end of the month. It’s also a time of year when our schedules are different than normal, so be sure to set a reminder for when you need to pay your bills. If you struggle with spending too much when you use a credit card, try only taking cash when you go shopping.

The end of the semester can be stressful with exams and final papers, and worrying about money can just make everything more complicated. Do yourself a favor and lessen some of the stress by prioritizing your financial wellness!

Self-Care to Complete your Stress Response Cycle

You’ve been dealing with stress lately. It’s the end of the semester. Final exams, papers, grading, holidays, relationships – all of these are complicated and cause stress. Emotions are more than just a momentary feeling – they are a biological process with a beginning, middle, and end.

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A complete stress cycle – that is from beginning, to middle, to end – would look something like this:

  • Your body senses danger, Let’s pretend you’re walking in the woods and come across an angry lion. It’s coming right for you.
  • Your body responds to help you survive. Blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration rate go up. Your immune system, reproductive system and digestive systems get suppressed to focus on survival. Let’s imagine you run and find a safe place where you close the door on this scary lion. The lion scratches a few times and then wanders away.
  • You survive. You feel grateful to be alive. Your systems come back online and your heart/breathing slow back to normal.

In order for your body to feel safe after stress, you have to complete the stress response cycle.

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Today’s stressors usually aren’t lions. They are papers, exams, traffic, relationships, systems of oppression. Some of these we can’t run away from and aren’t going away anytime soon, making it difficult to complete the full stress response cycle. If you get stuck in the stress response cycle, where your body never realizes that you’ve survived the stressor and are safe, you may begin to start seeing the negative impacts of stress.

The behaviors that manage stress in our body and complete the stress response cycle are not the same as those that deal with the solutions to the stressors. 

Which is good news because we don’t need to wait for stressors to be over in order to feel better. 

And it’s bad news because even if you manage a stressor (like completing your last exam of the semester or having a difficult conversation at last), you haven’t necessarily dealt with the stress itself. 

Deal with the stress.

Separate the stress from the stressor.

Take a break from whatever is causing you stress and focus on the stress – that is, the physical and emotional feelings that exist in your body.

Turn towards the stress with kindness and compassion.

TeKaImagine the scene with Moana and Te Ka, the lava monster (spoiler alert!). Walk towards your stress – in this metaphor, stress is the lava monster and you are Moana – calmly, gently, possibly singing “This is not who you are. You know who you are.” Use the video if a visual helps.

Complete the stress cycle with any of the following evidence-based, self-care strategies:

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Physical activity. Moving your body is the most efficient way to communicate to your body that you have moved out of an unsafe place to a safe place. You could take a walk off campus after you finish an exam to help your body realize it’s safe now. You could experience evening restorative yoga classes at Campus Rec to help your body relax at the end of the day.  You could go for a bike ride in the countryside. Remember that the goal of physical activity as self-care is to help your body recognize that you’ve moved to a safe place. We realize that for some people physical activity can be a source of stress. If you’re the only person of color in your pilates class, going to that class can be stressful. If you’re gender fluid, going to a gym and daring to use a locker room can actually be dangerous. If you go outside and walk you might get harassed or cat-called. So “exercise reduces stress” doesn’t quite cover how complicated it is. Thankfully – there are 3 other strategies you can use! 

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Imagination. If you’ve ever had a racing heart or sweaty palms before a competition or interview, you know that your body doesn’t have to BE in a real-life stressor in order to THINK that it needs to initiate a stress response cycle. Your imagination creates stress. Your imagination can also complete a stress response cycle. Visualize yourself as a B.A. monster crushing the place where you feel most stressed. Watch a movie or read a book that takes you through a hero’s journey and feel the complete cycle with the character. Use the power of your mind to feel that the danger has passed.

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Creative self-expression. Take your feelings and put them into art. Make a physical object or story representing how you feel. Stream-of-consciousness writing can help get the feelings that you’re having on paper which helps move through them. Going dancing with friends uses 3 of the 4 self-care strategies listed here. Find ways to express yourself that work for you and help your body feel safe and connected.

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Connection. Humans are built for connection and even positive superficial interactions help. Complimenting your server on their jewelry is all that it takes! These interactions clue your brain into knowing that it’s safe again. If you want to go deeper, try a 20-second hug with someone you really like and trust. When you can hold your body against someone else’s body for that long, eventually your chemistry switches. Your body remembers that you have someone who likes and trusts you enough to hold onto you for 20 whole seconds. And, we realize that people can cause stress. Other ways to connect include connecting with nature or the divine. Some people feel safe and held in nature. Some people experience their spirituality as a relationship with the divine and loving paternal, maternal or familial relationship where they can come home and feel safe. Find connection that makes you feel safe and held in whatever way works for you.

You deserve to feel safe and connected. Take the time to complete your stress cycle.

Adapted from https://youtu.be/BOaCn9nptN8, the research from Emily and Amelia Nagoski by Sara Stahlman, Marketing and Communication Coordinator. 

Photo credits:

  • Africa image by cocoparisienne from Pixabay
  • Studying image by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Moana image screenshot from Disney
  • Jumprope, piano painting, cube painting and quad hangout images by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Still adjusting to college life? No worries. It’s normal.

It’s normal to feel awkward, lost, confused, homesick, lonely (along with so many other emotions!) when you’re in college. This fall semester especially is a huge adjustment. We have been living in isolation so long it may be even harder than usual to start or re-start a social life. Lots of students are struggling to feel connected on campus this semester – whether they admit it to you or not. 
Here are some tips from students like you that helped them adjust and make students feel a bit more connected to campus. 

  • You aren’t alone. Lots of people feel the same way as you, even if they aren’t talking about it. You are not the only one who is having a difficult time. This is a transition for everyone and it can be overwhelming.
  • Keep your door open. Whether your residence hall room door, your office door, your carrel – the “window” to the rest of the world leaves space for some interactions that might not otherwise happen. 
  • Find a space on campus that you enjoy. This could be a tree to study under, a favorite spot in the library, the Union, or an office on campus, such as the LGBTQ Center or Women’s Center
  • Talk to people in your classes. Did someone ask a thought-provoking question in the discussion? Tell them so—it can lead to a great conversation that you can continue over lunch or coffee. Also, forming study groups is a great way to get to know people while also helping each other.
  • Join a club or organization. Getting involved is one of the best ways to meet people. In addition to being a place of higher education, college is also an ideal time to try something new or connect with people who have similar interests. Check out a sport, service or political organization, or a religious or cultural group on campus. Joining a club or organization gives you an opportunity to meet friends who have similar interests, and for many clubs you can join at any point throughout the year. HeelLife.unc.edu is one spot to explore.
  • Know your resources. There are lots of people on campus who want to help you adjust and who understand it can be rough. The Learning Center is a great place to visit to talk about adjusting to the college workload and college-level writing.  CAPS can be a great resource to talk out how you are feeling, especially if these feelings persist. Several peer and affinity-based support organizations exist to help you feel less alone that you can look for in the Mental Health Hub. All of these resources are covered under student fees, so it costs you nothing but a bit of time to take advantage of them!
A UNC student bikes across campus with fall leaves on the trees.