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How to avoid burnout over Christmas and the New Year

Many of us see the festive period as a time for celebrating, but it can easily become stressful as Christmas is overwhelming. From spending more money on Christmas shopping to non-stop social obligations and extended time with family, it can be physically and mentally exhausting. In some cases, it even lead to burnout.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. Coined by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s, it can occur when we feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained and unable to keep up with constant demands.

Although burnout is normally associated with work, anyone can experience it - and it can be common over Christmas and the New Year. According to a recent survey of 2,000 people, more than a third (35%) said they often feel burned out before Christmas arrives. A further 68% said they found the holiday season, including Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas, to be a stressful time.

"Many people find themselves under pressure at this time to socialise more than they want to and spend time with people they may have spent the whole year avoiding," says Lorna Evans, a psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP).

Socialising, financial pressure and family time

There are many reasons why we may feel stressed or experience burnout at Christmas. Often, it can mean spending a prolonged amount of time with relatives, which can lead to tension, disagreements and arguments.

For those who have lost family members or friends, grief can be a difficult emotion to process over the festive period. The pressure to 'keep up appearances' while dealing with the loss of a loved one can be extremely hard to cope with, particularly when surrounded by a sense of collective joy and celebration.

Financially, Christmas can also be a tricky time and people may find themselves working longer hours to pay for presents and food. Often, we feel obligated to attend lots of social events to avoid disappointing others, when we really need to take time to slow down and relax. As a result, we may end up getting less sleep, which can impact our mood.

"‘No’ really is the hardest word to say, and if you tend to please others, you're going to find it very stressful," says Evans. "After the year we've all had, it is crucial to create healthy boundaries for ourselves, as this may be the first real chance we've had to take a break in a long time."

Sometimes, even the change to our routines over the holiday season can have an impact on the way we feel. We may end up going to bed later, eating more or consuming more alcohol or richer foods, while doing less physical exercise. These lifestyle changes can have a knock-on effect on our mood and stress levels.

How to avoid burnout over Christmas

Think about what you want

"Burnout is the result of overwork or stress and Christmas can quickly become an emotional grenade we don't realise we were holding until it's too late," says Evans. "Take a deep breath and ask yourself what do you need from your Christmas break this year? What do your mind and body need to feel well?"

Once you've taken time to consider what you want from the holidays, it may be easier to avoid automatically saying ‘yes’ to all event invitations that come your way. Think about how you feel and when it would be more beneficial to stay in.

"Notice when you feel you need to step away from stressful people and environments. There has never been a better time of year to go for a walk, even borrow a dog," says Evans.

Take note of 'should' statements

"Notice if any 'should' messages come up, such as ‘'I should do this'. These statements are often about other people's needs and not our own, so it will be helpful to notice any sense of obligation you feel," Evans advises.

"Setting boundaries with time and people is essential to protect your energy. And always have an exit plan, a reason to leave early."

Set clear boundaries

Often, we can feel pressured to host Christmas because we have done so previously. However, it's important to say if you don't feel up to having people over.

If you do end up cooking Christmas dinner for others, it can help to set boundaries such as how long people can stay. Don't be afraid to ask guests to bring a course or a dish so you don't have as much work to do, or to ask people to help out with the dishes or tidying up too.

Avoid overdoing it with alcohol

Many of us drink more over Christmas and the New Year, but this can have a serious impact on our mental health and well-being. It is advised not to drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis and to spread your drinking over three or more days if you regularly drink as much as 14 units a week. Fourteen units is equivalent to six pints of average-strength beer or 10 small glasses of wine. If you're pregnant, you should avoid alcohol completely.

"Raise your awareness of the impact alcohol and food consumption is having on your mood and sleep. Alcohol is a depressant, so beginning to notice the impact will help you make healthier decisions to stay well," says Evans.

Say ‘no’ when you need to

"Slow things down and pause before saying ‘yes’ to things. Don't respond right away, but sleep on it and reflect if this is something you would like to do or feel under pressure to commit to," says Evans.

"The ability to say ‘no’ is similar to flexing a muscle, so start today and get practising. A helpful phrase to use is 'I'm unable to do that' - as there is no need to explain why, yet it's warmer than a straight ‘no’."

It might feel selfish, but it is important to prioritise your health and well-being around this time.

Get support

If you are struggling with the loss of a loved one, you don't have to experience grief alone. Organisations such as the charity Cruse Bereavement Support offer care and advice, or your doctor may be able to refer you for talking therapy. You can also refer yourself for counselling on the NHS too.

It is also important to speak to your doctor if you are struggling with your mental health and it is having an impact on your life.

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