Updated: Dec 16, 2022
By Dr. Charmain F. Jackman, PhD
It's the holiday season. A time for celebration. A time for traditions. Cue the holiday music, mouth-watering meals, opening gifts, and overall holiday cheer. While these images can stir fond memories and activate happy hormones like oxytocin and dopamine, they also usually come with an extra serving of stress and anxiety. Getting to those happy moments usually means enduring long shopping lines and holiday traffic; battling other holiday shoppers as you select the “perfect” gifts for a long list of family and friends; standing on your feet for hours as you prepare your favorite dishes; and spending more money than you planned or could afford. Plus, some may feel overwhelmed with the guilt and sadness around people and relationships they have lost. By the time the holiday events arrive, you may feel exhausted, depleted, and annoyed-- a sign of holiday burnout.
What is Holiday Burnout?
Holiday burnout captures the feelings of exhaustion, disengagement, resentment and overwhelm that can result from the pressure to “do it all” for the holidays, without considering what you really want. Many people experience internal and/or external pressures to create experiences that stem from childhood traditions. And, as it can feel extremely unpopular to break from tradition, people often end up re-creating traditions that cause major stress.
Breaking from Tradition:
During the pandemic, there was a break from these traditions as many were forced to reimagine the holiday traditions due to quarantine protocols. As a result, people significantly changed how they spent the season which meant less cooking, less shopping, less decorating, and less spending. All of which translated to less stress. Now, as we approach the 2022 holiday season, it is clear that people are moving “back to normal” and back to stressful holiday planning. But guess what? You do not have to. You have the opportunity to break away from tradition, and to create a holiday season that is meaningful to you and less stressful too.
Looking for new ways to take the stress out of the holiday season? Follow these seven (7) emotional wellbeing tips to help you reduce stress and avoid holiday burnout:
Write down your ideal holiday plan: Take some time to write down what each holiday means to you and how you would ideally like to enjoy it. For example, which holiday is most important to you? Who would you want to be present? Which activities do you want to attend and which ones would you rather skip? How many activities do you feel capable of attending without feeling stressed? How far do you want to travel? How much time do you want to spend engaging in different activities (e.g., cooking/baking, shopping, attending parties, etc)? Once you have answered these questions, you will have a good sense of what will work best for you, which can help you to create your holiday plan.
Communicate your holiday plan to those around you: Now that you have your plan, it’s time to share with the people around you. Having these conversations may feel stressful as you may worry about disappointing others or changing their plans, but it will be less stressful than carrying out the actual activity. In addition, giving the people involved advance notice will give them time to come up with an alternate plan. So don't wait until the last minute to talk to them. Also, be prepared for people to push against your boundary. As a result, let them know that it is a difficult time or that you are being intentional in reducing your stress. By being vulnerable, they are more likely to understand. If they do not, then you will know that these are individuals who do not have your best interests in mind.
Practice mindfulness: According to the American Psychological Association (2019) Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is an intervention that has been proven to reduce stress. Data compiled by Zuckerman (2020) shows that 60% of people who practice mindfulness meditation show a reduction in stress and anxiety. The three (3) main components of mindfulness are:
Breathe: Intentional breathing can help to slow down your heart rate, regulate your emotions, and respond better to tough situations such as being stuck in traffic, waiting in long lines, or dealing with a problematic comment from a family member. Try a simple breathing technique such as box breathing (inhale on a count of 4; hold for a count of 4; exhale for a count of 4; hold for a count of 4; repeat 4 times) and notice how you feel afterwards. [See image below]
Be present: Focusing on your surroundings can help you to stay grounded and stop you from worrying too much about the past or the future. Simply engaging the 5 senses in the various activities you do such as walking, cooking, washing dishes, or eating can help to slow down your thoughts and help you feel more in control.
Show self-Compassion: Many people have a harsh inner critic or negative self-talk that can get worse during the holidays, especially as there are so many unrealistic expectations to be perfect. For example, being the “perfect” host; purchasing the “perfect” gifts; preparing the “perfect” meal; or outdoing a previous holiday celebration. Show yourself some empathy, give yourself grace, and discard those unattainable standards.
Box Breathing Illustration
Get Sleep: One of the fastest ways to burnout is sleep deprivation and getting caught up in the busyness of the holiday season can easily disrupt sleep routines. Stress can significantly impact sleep making it harder to fall asleep or causing people to have restless sleep. So, reduce the task list, and find ways to settle your body and mind (e.g., mindfulness, meditation) before your head hits the pillow.
Move your body: The holiday season tends to be marked by excessive eating, consuming beverages high in sugar and foods high in carbs, and muscle strain due to long hours standing or sitting. After a big meal, start a new tradition by taking a stroll. For those spending long hours on their feet shopping or preparing meals, trying stretching to relax those fatigued muscles. Getting out for exercise or even a short walk can also help you to sleep better.
Do something that makes you smile: Remember the holiday season is about joy and one way to counter holiday burnout is to bring joy in whatever you do. For example, create a playlist of your favorite holiday songs or songs that make you smile and put you in a good mood. If music is not your thing, consider watching a favorite movie or TV show that reminds you of the joy of the season. Just do something that makes you smile.
Plan a rest day: It can be very easy to get caught up in the “on-the-go” mentality that is synonymous with the holidays. You can step out of the fast pace by planning a rest day. This will definitely be needed if you were not able to follow steps 1-6 above. Make sure to build in a day or two where your calendar is empty and you can curl up on the couch with a good book or magazine or watch a favorite show. Take time to rest. You deserve it.
Coming out of the pandemic, people are feeling the pressure to go back to the old ways of doing things. Take this time to reflect on what is most important to you and give yourself permission to create a holiday season that is filled with joy and low on stress. Remember, it will be challenging to enjoy the holiday season if you are stressed and burnt out, so only do those things that bring you joy.
Dr. Charmain Jackman (she/her) is a licensed psychologist with 25+ years in the mental health field. She is the founder and CEO of InnoPsych, Inc., a mental health tech company on a mission to disrupt racial inequities in mental health and to spread a culture of thriving across the world. InnoPsych offers an online platform that connects people of color to therapists of color and provides programming that empowers leaders to cultivate emotionally safe work cultures that result in thriving organizations and people. Specific focus areas include racial trauma, mental health, and emotional wellbeing. She is the creator of the My Time To Thrive card deck, which provides tools for reducing stress and fostering healthy coping patterns. Dr. Jackman has won several awards for her impactful work including the Boston Business Journal 2022 Power 50 Movement Makers, 2021 American Psychological Association’s (APA) Citizen Psychologist Award and City of Boston’s 2021 Innovator of The Year award. Dr. Jackman has been featured on national media outlets such as the New York Times, NPR, PBS, and the Boston Globe.