Each year, after the holiday season, I’ll be completely honest — I find myself exhausted. When I’ve completed my final deadlines, wrapping gifts, and making many to-do lists (checking them twice), I feel as if I’m on the brink of burnout. It doesn’t help that I experience seasonal depression, which already makes me feel tired and stressed.
I also know that I’m not alone. Though they’re considered a “happy time,” the holidays can make even the strongest among us crack.
Each individual has stressors that affect them this time of year. Maybe the thought of seeing certain family members sent you into a panic attack. Maybe the credit card bills are now due and you’re worried. Or, a jam-packed schedule now that everyone is back to work has you gasping for breath and wishing for a few moments to yourself.
“The holidays are known as a time that can cause burnout because of the surge of seasonal activities that add a completely new level of stress, much higher than the one we already had,” says Cynthia V. Catchings, LCSW-S, a Talkspace senior therapist.
“Our social calendar tends to fill up right at the same time that our end-of-the year deadlines at work or school loom,” says Catchings. “Office and school parties, family and friends’ invitations, and other worthwhile but time-consuming events cut into both our workday and our downtime, making it that much more difficult to complete all our work projects and get our gift shopping done on time” she adds.
Luckily, there are some key indicators that you’re facing burnout, whether after the holidays or another time of year.
What Leads to Burnout?
Defined as the mental, emotional, and sometimes physical exhaustion created by the repetition of stressful activities, burnout can show up in a myriad of ways.
While common things like heavy workloads and family obligations can certainly result in burnout, what really dials it up is a lack of rest, relaxation, and mindfulness, which “exacerbates the problem, causing what we would define as ‘dangerous burnout,’” as Dr. Cynthia V. Catchings says.
She illustrates this point, saying, “As an example, we can see that two people work at the same office and have the same extremely heavy caseloads. Both are treated equally and receive the same pay. One practices yoga in the mornings, takes short breaks during the day, eats healthier meals, and meditates at night. The other one has difficulty sleeping, skips breakfast and does not take more than the lunch break at work, eats an unhealthy fast food dinner, and does not exercise. As we can imagine, one is going to respond differently to burnout from the other.”
This level of stress can easily crop up during the holidays, a jam-packed time in which you attempt to complete your regular activities in addition to the “special” ones that crop up when you celebrate the season. By the time December wraps up, you may be in full burnout mode in January.
The bottom line? A lack of self-care leads to burnout.
Physical and Emotional Symptoms of Burnout
So, what are the physical symptoms of burnout, holiday-related and otherwise? If you’re burned out, you might experience:
- Chest pain
Burnout can manifest as mental and emotional symptoms as well, including:
- Lack of concentration
If you don’t address your burnout, unfortunately, it can take a turn for the worst and eventually lead to more serious health issues including a heart attack, stroke, chronic gastritis, and severe anxiety.
Managing Holiday Burnout
Let’s break down how to handle burnout — from the minute you realize you’re dealing with it to the weeks following the holidays.When it first dawns on you that you’re in the midst of burnout, Dr. Cynthia V. Catchings recommends rest and mindfulness. She explains that “If you are not familiar with mindfulness activities, ask your therapist or doctor or use reliable internet sites to search for ideas.”
Rest and mindfulness
Another way you can work through burnout is with visual imagery, one of Dr. Cynthia V. Catchings’ go-to activities. “Think of your favorite place, and once or twice a day, close your eyes for a couple of minutes and take yourself there,” she explains. “Feel the breeze, hear the sounds, touch the items, or enjoy what nature offers during that mini vacation you are creating in your mind.”
After a couple days of facing your burnout head-on, you can take time to evaluate what your stressors might be and then work to reduce or eliminate them altogether in favor of self-care activities. It also can be helpful to talk to a therapist during this time.
In the weeks afterward, continue to be mindful of your symptoms, see which self-care activities work best for you, and even learn new ways to release stress.
Catch the signs of burnout, before it starts
You can — and arguably should — try to avoid burnout before it starts. This requires a dedication to yourself and activities that genuinely make you feel good. Think mindfulness, exercise, participating in hobbies, eating healthy, sleeping well, and being kind to yourself.
“Advocate for yourself,” Dr. Cynthia V. Catchings says. “Being assertive is one of the best things we can do. Do not allow others to dictate how you feel. You might not have control over what others say or do, but you do have control over how you feel.”
Post-holiday burnout is a very real thing, so there’s no need to pretend you’re OK or believe it’s all in your head. Just like you would wash your hands to avoid catching a cold, you can do your best to avoid burnout before it begins.
Dr. Cynthia V. Catchings sums it up best, saying, “Burnout is preventable. Do not wait until it appears. You have the power to live a happy and healthy life and it all starts with prevention and love, not only during the holidays but throughout the year.”
It looks like I have some self-care activities in my near future so I can head off full-on burnout at the pass. If your sense of burnout simply isn’t going away, even after the holidays are long over, you can speak to a mental health professional and see if online therapy lifts those feelings of burnout.