Sidestepping holiday burnout

Holidays are all about the twinkling lights, the pretty snowflakes, the thoughtful presents, and the warm childhood memories … right? Maybe some eggnog thrown in there?

The truth is, a lot of my clients struggle mightily with the holiday season. First of all, it’s LONG — a month, even two, during which sappy commercials and cheerful carols are ubiquitous. You might start to feel like you should be happy for the entire month of December, and that’s just not realistic.

The holidays are also loaded with expectations, obligations and expenses. How much time and money are you devoting to shopping for gifts? Are you spending every weekend between Thanksgiving and New Year’s socializing (and eating too much, and drinking too much…)? This can also be a high-stress time for families, especially if tensions between in-laws and other relatives already exist.

And if you’re going through something difficult in your own life — unemployment, mourning the death of a loved one, or adjusting to a medical diagnosis, to name a few possibilities — you may find that all the focus on joy is just too much.

Check back for upcoming posts that specifically address how to handle family conflict and personal sadness during the holiday season. For now, here are some general thoughts on how you might avoid burnout:

1. Just say no. Do you really need to go to your cousin’s friend’s holiday open house? Is it essential that you and/or your children participate in every gift exchange opportunity that crosses your path? Be planful about whom you buy for, and how you spend your precious leisure time. It’s OK to pass on a few parties and write up thoughtful notes in lieu of gifts for the people on the perimeter of your life.

2. Avoid overindulging in food & alcohol. I know, I know, this is an unpopular one. But please step away from the Christmas cookies, candy, cheesy potatoes and peppermint mochas — or at least limit them. Try not to let the fun of the holidays turn into a food free-for-all or you’ll be hounded by guilt, digestive problems and extra pounds. And alcohol is a depressant. If you’re already feeling exhausted and a little blue, going overboard on the booze is going to bring you down even more over the course of the season. Plus, being intoxicated may increase the risk of conflict with loved ones.

3. Make time for low-key, inexpensive holiday activities. Take your kids on a drive to scope out other people’s holiday decorations. Make a favorite holiday dish, stay home and play games. Watch Love Actually for the 20th time. Go to religious services. Do what makes you feel connected to the holidays.

4. Don’t be a slave to tradition: This Christmas or Hanukkah isn’t going to be the same as last year or any other year. When we attempt to recreate events, we risk disappointment. Be willing to reinvent, modify or abandon traditions that are no longer working for your family. Just because you *always* do something doesn’t mean you have to do it exactly the same way this year — especially if it’s not fun anymore or involves too much work.

5. Act opposite: The moment you notice yourself gunning for that parking spot at Wegmans is the moment you need to pass it by and park farther away. When you find yourself about to tell someone off at Target, smile instead. Notice your emotions and make a conscious decision to neutralize frustration rather than give into it. Don’t let the holidays turn you into someone you’re not.

Mindfulness in the workplace

It’s all in the marketing: Even big business execs will get behind the concept of mindfulness if it leads to increased profits and a happier workforce.

Apparently a number of companies with a national presence — including Target, General Mills, and the Mayo Clinic — are installing mindfulness/meditation programs for leaders and employees. I love to see mindfulness expanded to new contexts, and the workplace is a perfect venue. Mindfulness is not just some squishy, abstract concept. It really is about improving one’s ability to focus and be in the present, which can only be a good thing for workers at any company. Way to go, guys!

Texting for weight loss

Crossing the threshold from dreaming to doing is easier said than done. Running back Emmitt Smith phrased it well when he said, in his 2010 Hall of Fame speech, “It’s only a dream until you write it down. Then it becomes a goal.”

The point is accountability. Research shows that people who keep food and exercise diaries lose more weight than people who fumble through their weight loss efforts without specific direction or focus. The catch, of course, is actually following through: People often balk at jotting down each morsel of food and every workout. Interactive smartphone apps like My Fitness Pal try to make the process more user-friendly with graphs, easy-add options for meals, and a social networking aspect so the whole thing feels less lonely. But you still have to remember to log in every day, multiple times a day.

A new study shows that simply texting updates on progress may be more helpful than keeping traditional diaries. Folks who received text reminders and responded to these reminders with the number of steps they walked the previous day, the number of sugary drinks they consumed, and whether or not they ate fast food tended to lose more weight that people using more time-honored methods. The authors of the study think that replying to a text is easier, more streamlined way to track eating and exercise behaviors, and also allows for tailored feedback (if the person you’re texting is able to respond).

I’d totally like to try this out with clients who are trying to lose weight. Texting combines accountability with social support – it’s like having a personal coach or cheering section within reach at all times.

The new cure for depression: sleep?

Depression and insomnia have long been known to create a hellish downward spiral: Being depressed can wreak havoc on your ability to sleep, and not getting enough sleep can make your mood even worse. As anyone who’s been sleep deprived knows, it’s a lot harder to cope with even minor irritations when you’re running on empty.

Therapists often talk to clients about “sleep hygiene” — the set of basic practices that can regulate a person’s sleep patterns when applied consistently, such as going to bed and getting up at the same time every day. A new study out of Toronto shows that many clients who were able to make changes to their sleep routines and conquer insomnia saw their depressive symptoms disappear.

Other similar studies are underway with results due out next year. If the outcome of this Toronto study is replicated, it could mean that cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) will become a more standardized part of depression treatment.

I’ve found that folks are not always willing or able to put sleep hygiene strategies into practice. In my experience, one of the least popular suggestions is avoiding screen time before bed. Giving up television, phones and computers for an hour or two is a sacrifice some people aren’t eager to make, especially if they don’t really think it will make a difference. Other people find it very difficult to stick with regular bedtimes and wake-up times.

The results of the Toronto study are compelling though. If you’re thinking twice about your bedtime routine, check out this Huffington Post piece, which describes CBT-I in detail. A better night’s sleep — and a better mood — might be just a few habit changes away.