Could the Holidays Be Burning You Out?


I've said it before and I'll say it again: for many people the holiday season is an exciting time of year.  It provides an opportunity to reconnect with friends and family. To celebrate. To give to those who matter most to us, and to be generous to those who struggle.  And yet, the holiday season can also leave us vulnerable to burnout; We only have so much energy to give, and during the holidays you may be asked to give A LOT of your time and energy.  If you are a Type-A personality or overachiever, you want to be able to do it all - make it to every holiday party, give the absolute best gift, and make sure you check-off every person on your greeting card list. If you are an empath or caretaker, you may already spend a good chunk of time meeting the needs of other people, and the extra energy you put out during the holiday season may push you just past the line from balance into burnout.

What is burnout?

According to the Miller-Keane Encyclopedia & Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, & Allied Health, burnout is the "emotional and physical exhaustion resulting from a combination of exposure to environmental and internal stressors and inadequate coping and adaptive skills. In addition to signs of exhaustion, the person with burnout exhibits an increasingly negative attitude toward his or her job, low self-esteem, and personal devaluation." To put that definition into simpler turns: burnout is a state in which a combination of external and internal stressors leads you to feel physically and emotionally exhausted, increasingly negative, and more likely to discredit the good things about yourself and your life.

Why is the holiday season a prime time for burnout?

Burnout can happen at any time, for any number of reasons. However, I commonly see clients experiencing increased stress and burnout during the holiday season. Why? Well, there can be a number of reasons:

  1. Increased demands: for many, many people, there is an increasing number of things to do during the holiday season. And these things may not always be bad.  For example, you may have a combination of holiday parties to juggle.  Even if you love going out and socializing, too many events within too short a time-frame can leave you drained. Especially when these events occur on the weekends, when we normally take our time to rest and recharge. It's no coincidence that the cliche exists, "too much of a good thing." I speak with my clients about this all the time; When we over-extend ourselves, whether it be for fun or for work, we place ourselves at risk for burnout.
  2. Pressure to meet expectations: everyone celebrates the holidays differently, and therefore have different expectations about what a person "should" do during this time of year. This pressure can come from friends or family, who may want you to travel extensively to attend holiday dinners or expect certain types of gifts. It can also come from within; Perhaps you feel guilty if you don't attend every holiday celebration you are invited to, or if you don't get your family members the gifts they want. No matter where that pressure comes from, it can be valuable to ask yourself, "Are there things I am telling myself I should be doing this holiday season that are leaving my vulnerable to stress?"
  3. Boundary crossing by friends or family: for some people, friends or family become especially vocal or pushy during the holiday season.  This may be out of a learned habit - perhaps every year your mother has dictated to you what she expects for a Christmas or Hanukah gift, and so she complains when she does not feel the gift is appropriate. Boundary crossing may also occur during the holidays because you simply spend more time with friends or family members, and so there are more opportunities for people to give unsolicited advice, share opinions, or give criticisms.  A boundary cross occurs whenever a person says or does something you do not feel is normally appropriate to the relationship. If this tends to happen more during the holidays, then it can take a fair amount of your emotional energy to keep boundaries in place. This extra emotional exertion is another potential ingredient for burnout.

What are the signs and symptoms of burnout?

The signs and symptoms of burnout can vary from person-to-person.  However, common signs of burnout include:

  • Decreased interest in activities that you normally enjoy
  • Increased emotional overwhelm
  • Sleep problems
  • Anxiety and Depression
  • Increased moodiness
  • Fatigue or exhaustion that sticks around
  • Physical Health issues: being chronically under the weather or experiencing physical ailments like headaches or GI issues
  • Difficulty concentrating or attention issues
  • Forgetfulness
  • Loss of productivity
  • Increased feeling of anger
  • Increased conflicts with friends, family members or co-workers
  • Crying more easily or more frequently
  • A chronic feeling of being on-edge
  • Isolation
  • Cynicism or consistently negative thoughts
  • Apathy/feeling like you don't care about anything

How can I prevent (or recover from) holiday burnout?

When we burnout, our nervous systems get thrown out-of-whack.  Our minds and bodies have been spending too much time in fight-or-flight mode and not enough time in rest and relax mode.  This is why many people who experience burnout experience a lack of motivation - your body is trying to force you to finally slow down.  Of course, if we completely check out on life and go from too busy to too passive, then we just end up creating more problems for ourselves in the long run. They key to avoiding burnout, or recovering, is to balance healthy, quality rest and self-care with a reasonable amount of productive, goal-directed activity.  If you have been in burnout for a long time, or the intensity of your burnout is severe, then more rest may be required before you are ready to return to your normal routine.  Here are just a few ideas to help you combat burnout:

  • Take a vacation. If a "real" vacation isn't feasible right now, ask yourself "What is it I enjoy most about being on vacation?" and then try to bring these qualities into your life for a day or two.  For example, if it's sleeping in, give yourself permission to do that.  If it's having a break from your cellphone and e-mails, take a day or a half of a day away from those.
  • Self-soothe your senses.  Identify things that you can see, smell, touch, and hear that make you feel nurtured and comforted.  Then bring those into your life.  You may use things like essential oils, relaxing music, or treat yourself to favorite dessert.
  • Do one thing at a time.  We leave ourselves susceptible to burnout when we take on too much and find ourselves multitasking.  This habit then becomes hard to shut-off.  Combat this tendency by purposely doing one thing at a time.  When you are folding laundry, fold laundry.  When you are brushing your teeth, just brush your teeth.
  • Use guided imagery.  Visit a YouTube channel you like or download a guided imagery meditation.  Make sure you choose imagery that feels comforting to you.
  • Relax with purpose.  Give yourself permission to just REST, and make sure that while you are resting you at NOT multi-tasking! Be fully present when you are relaxing, whether it be reading a book, watching a movie, or just simply sitting on the couch doing nothing.
  • Practice balancing what you want to do with what you need to do.  Make sure every day you are doing at least one things from each category.

Burnout can throw our mental, emotional, and physical health into the gutter.  Take proactive measures to help protect yourself, and know the signs so you can implement strategies if you notice burnout creeping in.  The more you practice awareness, self-care, and self-compassion, the better at recognizing and combating burnout you will become.