By Dr. Mara Windsor
While the holidays bring fun festivities and quality time with loved ones, they can also bring on stress. From family obligations to gift giving and holiday hosting, it can amplify your daily life stresses and push you to a state of burnout – a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged stress. Then, many of us are so busy we do not even recognize our symptoms!
Here are a few signs you might be burnt out, or headed that way this holiday season, with tips on how to achieve more peace amidst your day-to-day responsibilities and stressors.
- Just thinking about the holidays makes you feel exhausted.
If you are starting to consistently feel fatigue or exhaustion you might be headed toward burnout, especially if it occurs when you are merely just thinking about the holiday bustle and hustle. I attempt to counteract this by making sure that I keep my diet under control by eating what supports me and makes me feel good. For example, I know that processed foods, pastries, and sugar make me feel bloated and irritable. Therefore, I avoid those foods during stressful times, and I make sure to sleep as much as possible. I have always been the kind of person who requires a lot of sleep and now I know that sleep is one of the ways in which our body releases DHEA, which helps to decrease our cortisol levels, combatting weight gain, autoimmune disease, stress, and burnout. By the way sex, yoga, and meditation help to release DHEA as well. Not to mention oxytocin – a feel good hormone that our body releases.
- Insomnia or racing thoughts are preventing you from resting, falling asleep or staying asleep.
If you are like me, you might wake up at 2:30 or 3 a.m. thinking about your to-do list for the day or the week. Although this happens for me often, I find it is heightened during the holidays because of all the extra planning and responsibilities that I put on myself or I think are expected of me. For me, these early mornings are caused by stress, but there may also be many difficult factors contributing to early awakening including a variety of sleeping disorders. Please see you doctor if you think you have a sleeping disorder as it can cause long-term medical problems.
I am currently still working on this in my own personal life. One thing I use in my practice is this: I tell my brain that it is time to rest now and there will plenty of time to get everything done and it will all work out. I will say this to myself over and over until my brain settles down. Most of the time it works.
Another thing I have done is keeping a notepad by my nightstand and writing down what is on my mind to let it go and to save it for later. Sometimes I come up with incredible ideas or solutions to problems that I have been trying to solve, so I write them down and try to go back to sleep. I also spend a significant amount of time making sure that my sleep environment is cool, dark, and as noise free as possible. This last one is a challenge with three kids and three dogs, but some days it works out!
- You are experiencing impaired concentration, forgetfulness, and a short attention span.
I have noticed through my education and career that when I am unable to focus or remember details it is usually because I am not being mindful, and I am not being present in the moment or event. I used to be a firm believer in the concept of multi-tasking and was proud thinking that I could master multiple things at the same time. Well, research in neurobiology and neuroplasticity has proven that it is impossible for humans to multi-task effectively.
In fact, the more we attempt this the more it results in less efficiency for each task. More errors are made, and there is less retention of knowledge and details. I like to refer to this as the monkey brain. When my monkey brain starts, I try to refocus my brain by stopping what I am doing and counting to 10, which shifts our brain from our amygdala (our reactive fight or flight center) to our frontal lobe, which provides our executive functions so that we can use our high cognitive functions rather than our emotion-based reactive responses. Then, I chose the task that either needs to be completed first or the task that I have been procrastinating on the most. This usually works for me. However, if it does not work, then I will shift to an easier task so that I feel accomplished afterwards which usually provides me the motivation to continue my other priorities.
- You are feeling the physical symptoms of stress.
Stress-induced physical symptoms can be anything from musculoskeletal pain and insomnia to chest pain and digestive issues. If you are experiencing recurring headaches, back pain, abdominal pain, and or autoimmune symptoms, then you might want to think about the impact stress has in your life. Additionally, if you do not have meaningful work and are not living a life of purpose serving others then you may want to reevaluate your life and priorities.
Personally, when I get stressed and overwhelmed, I feel it in my back, neck, and digestive system. I will have aching muscles and joint pain, which I am certain is due to inflammation from excess cortisol in my bloodstream. I will also feel nauseated or experience a decreased appetite with a sense of nervousness in my stomach. This will translate into stomach cramping and generalized upset.
Again, this is all from the release of cortisol. I have now learned that when my neck and back hurt or my appetite is getting diminished, I am doing too much and not prioritizing myself or wellbeing. When this happens, I will intentionally cancel something that I have previously committed to and say no to other offerings that day. It always amazes me how freeing that can be and the weight that is lifted when I just say NO. I also schedule time for myself every day and put it in my calendar so that I do not schedule anything else as a reminder to me of what my priorities are.
- You are trying to do everything on your own.
After multiple injuries and surgeries, I have learned that there are certain things I must let go of, especially during the holidays. For example, I now pay someone to hang Christmas lights, help me decorate and do the Christmas wrapping. I have found these tasks during the holidays to be the most stressful, time consuming, and time sensitive. I usually end up doing these tasks all on my own and sometimes until 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning on Christmas Eve which leaves me feeling resentful, exhausted, and unappreciated on Christmas morning. This is not the way to appreciate your family and enjoy Christmas. You mothers out there know what I am talking about! If you really take a hard look at the extra details and responsibilities that you take on during the holidays, you can find ways to let go, delegate, and solicit your friends and family to help.
I also used to try to host Thanksgiving all on my own and cook most of the meal, but I found myself completely exhausted and dissatisfied by the end of the day and the holiday weekend which was not serving me. Now, I have each of our family members bring a dish and I provide the house and my favorite dishes which are green bean casserole and pumpkin pie. I have found that our family enjoys this more and it gives them plenty to talk about over dinner as they love to share their recipes and stories behind their food.
This year, give yourself permission to prioritize your wellbeing throughout the holidays, and take time to check in with yourself and what you need most. Do not be afraid to delegate or hire someone to help. Think of it this way. . .you are paying it forward for someone else to earn money for their holidays and family enjoyment.
Dr. Mara Windsor is an emergency physician, philanthropist, and advocate for wellness. Seven years ago, she founded L.I.F.E. (Living in Fulfilled Enlightenment), a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the physical, emotional, and spiritual wellness of professionals. In addition to being the founder of L.I.F.E. nonprofit, she serves as the National ACEP Wellness Spokesperson, is a national Envision peer coach, and Arizona Medical Association peer coach.