Mind Mental Health

How to Cope When the Winter Burnout Struggle Is Real

December 30, 2019
A cute dog is wrapped in a warm blanket.
© Irina Polonina / Stocksy United
Quick Read

Winter burnout is a real thing

  • Holiday stress and seasonal mood changes can make you feel burnt out.
  • Try to seek out experiences that bring awe into your life.
  • If you have vacation time, use it — maybe to visit a sunny place.
  • Resist the urge to isolate yourself; make time for seeing friends.
  • Remind yourself of your goals and purpose.

Between shorter days, packed holiday schedules, last-minute work projects due before January 1, and reflections on the past and resolutions for the future, it’s no wonder many of us get busier — and more stressed — as the year draws to a close.

If you’re feeling more than just a little stressed and tired, though, you’re definitely not alone. Winter burnout is a real thing.

“It becomes a challenging time and it forces us to focus on wellness in a different and more intentional way,” says Anne Browning, founding director of the UW Resilience Lab and assistant dean for wellness at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

If you’ve noticed you aren’t moving as much and getting exercise, aren’t eating as healthfully, aren’t sleeping well or have major behavioral changes, those are all potential signs you’re burnt out. 

Chances are the burnout isn’t necessarily new but has been hiding out or festering for a while until the holiday season stress kicked it into high gear. 

“Most of what I’ve seen in folks talking about burnout, it’s not that burnout didn’t exist previously, it’s just that they didn’t really have the words for it,” Browning explains.

Here are a few things you can do if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Reconnect with awe

When we get too stressed or overwhelmed, we tend to focus on the negative things in our lives instead of the things that are still positive. 

It’s a natural reaction, but it can mean missing out on inspiring or uplifting moments when they happen (because they still will). 

To counter this, Browning recommends purposefully seeking out experiences that make you feel awed. This could be something bigger, like taking a trip to a beautiful place, or something simple, like taking a short walk in your neighborhood and paying attention to the beauty of the natural world around you. 

“It’s about giving ourselves the chance to see things through new eyes and notice the awesome things that are happening around us,” Browning says.

It probably won’t solve all your problems or make your stress disappear, but it can help you build some resilience by reminding yourself that there are still good things to be found even during difficult times.

Use your vacation time

If you’re one of those people who hoards vacation time or feels like you’re just too busy to take time off, now might be the time to instead prioritize your mental health.

“If you have the flexibility to use some vacation and get to sunshine, please do that for your well-being,” Browning says.

Maybe that means a short trip down to California or Arizona for some rays or taking a longer trip somewhere farther that you’ve been dreaming about. Or maybe it just means a much-needed staycation to give yourself time to recharge in your own environment.

Make connections

Your instinct might be to stay home and isolate yourself when you’re feeling burnt out. That’s what a lot of us do. You may think it’s helpful, but it’s actually counterproductive and can make you feel worse. 

“Get up and connect. It can be hard but it also can be something that’s valuable,” Browning says.

Having solid social connections and friendships helps lessen negative feelings. When you spend time with people you care about, you’re forced to focus on someone outside of yourself and have an opportunity to talk about your struggles, if you want to. 

It’s also a reminder that you have people in your life who care about and support you.

The next time you feel like cancelling plans or staying in to binge Netflix instead of meeting up with a friend, resist the urge to isolate yourself. Or, if you still really want to stay in, invite your friend over for your TV show marathon.  

Renew your sense of purpose

The end of the year and the start of a new one is a natural time to think about what your goals are in life, what you accomplished in the past year and what you want to do in the near future. 

“One of the keys to resilience is being able to anchor yourself in a sense of purpose,” Browning says.

Use this time of year as an opportunity to reconnect with your “why”.  This could be anything from what you’re most grateful for, what or who matters most to you, what motivates you, or why you like your job. 

It’s easy during times of stress to simply go through the motions without thinking about why we do what we do. So slow down a little and remind yourself what matters to you. 

Take the Next Step

  • Learn more tips for dealing with the mental health effects of dreary winter weather.
  • Read more about burnout and how to handle it.
  • Feeling extra stressed? Make an appointment with a mental health specialist.