by Edward Bruce Bynum, Ph.D.,A.B.P.P., Director of Behavioral Medicine
Mental Health Department, University Health Services
Often the end of the year or the end of the season is an emotionally intense time for students and family. Many events may be occurring simultaneously. There is pressure associated with the semester’s end. There are concerns about grades. There is stress associated with study. There is especially anxiety about the future for seniors and those in graduate school. This is also the case for first semester students who are wondering if indeed they have what it takes to make it in a demanding academic environment. For others, many family pressures arise. There are anticipated family meetings with the potential for restirring up older, unresolved conflicts with family and siblings. These are intense “reunions” because one is often psychologically trying to establish one’s own separate identity in the world and experiencing real autonomy for the first time. There are anticipated dreaded visits, revisiting old guilts and pressures, etc. There are significant personal and family anniversaries, such as the death of a loved one, to which we have an unpleasant reaction or even a collective reaction to a major cultural event like the attack on the World Trade Towers, which still sends waves of anger, nausea and anxiety through the shared body politic. These can all lead to various kinds of pressures which then eventuate in family and individually oriented crisis around the holidays and around anniversaries.
Family life is a critical and important aspect of everyone’s life. Indeed, it is the bedrock of our primary emotional and psychological relationships. Many of our later important relationships throughout life are permutations and derivations of these earlier primary relationships. When there is a disruption or a stress in one of these primary relationship configurations, we respond generally with a crisis. Crisis, of course, is both a sign of danger and an opportunity for emotional and even spiritual growth.
These individual and family re-engagements create crises around holidays which can express themselves in a number of ways. One of the more common is an increase in anxieties, especially with one’s roommate. There may be increased frustration and short-temperedness with other people. One of the more subtle changes is a perception of time being shorter and more contracted. Sometimes with this crisis, there is an increased concern about medical and emotional problems. These may have been dormant throughout the year but suddenly take on a greater urgency. For some individuals, there is even a mild kind of reactive depression. This can lead to decreased concentration, more difficulties with sleep or sleeplessness, and an increase in pervasive anxiety. This means that the anxiety is not necessarily associated with a specific person or situation, but rather with the mode or the general atmosphere of one’s life at that time. It should be noted that this is not the same as grief or mourning or bereavement. It is rather a sense of anxiety and the mild depression that may come as a result of all these changes and events.
It is important to notice this in yourself. Generally these situations are more intense than in the high school. In high school one may have been at the top of the class or studying came easily. In a more demanding academic and athletic environment, older skills may not shine as easily as they did in the past. This can be stressful and a shift in the way you see yourself.
In most cases these holiday and anniversary stimulated family crises pass with the passing of the holiday or season. This is quite normal. It is not an indication of pathology or the need for counseling or psychotherapy. At the end of the year most of it ends and the person returns to school or returns home for the summer. However, when situations are persistent, when that mild depression is something that doesn’t seem to be shaken easily, when anxiety begins to disrupt concentration, sleep and the flow of work, then it is perhaps time to go beyond talking with friends and associates and seek out at least a brief professional consultation.
Ackerman, N. 1958. The Psychodynamics of Family Life: Diagnosis and Treatment of Family Relationships. New York: Basic Books
Framo, J. L. 1970. Symptoms from a Family Transactional Viewpoint. In N. W. Ackerman, J. Dieb and J. K. Pearce, eds., Family Life in Transition. Boston: Little, Brown & Co.
Whitaker, C., and Napier, A.Y. 1978. The Family Crucible: The Intense Experience of Family Therapy. NY: Harper & Row, Inc.