The holidays can bring fun, family, food, festivities — and fatigue.  When either physical or mental fatigue creep up, how do you have more of the fun and less of the frenzy?  

Understand Your Brain

During busy holiday times, our brain’s prefrontal cortex is on high alert. This part of the brain handles “executive functions” like complex decision-making, balancing risk and reward, and helping to make sure you don’t just blurt out something inappropriate. Unfortunately, stress, distraction, or too much choice can overload the prefrontal cortex just when you need its help the most – and you’ll find plenty of those distractors during the holidays.  What gifts to get, and for whom? Why can’t we decide whether to have Christmas at Grandma’s house or your sister’s new home? How are you going to pay for all this anyway?    This year, give your prefrontal cortex a holiday present by managing stress in these three easy ways.  You’ll earn yourself calm, happy, and sharp thinking throughout the holiday season.

Fight Fatigue

First, the best way to pamper your prefrontal cortex is to get enough sleep!  Dr Michael J. Bruess tells Psychology Today that this brain region is especially hard hit by sleep deprivation, leaving you “more likely to be impulsive in your decision making. Impulsive decisions tend to favor immediate rewards.”  Look to leaders like Ariana Huffington and Jeff Bezos, who prioritize sleep at night, in order to maximize what they get done during the day.  Set a bedtime routine, avoid caffeine after 2pm, and try to avoid pharmaceutical sleep aids, if you can.  

Reduce Distraction

Brain scientist Jeff Stibel points out in USA Today that the brain actually resists choice. Stibel’s research shows that when the brain has a couple of choices, the prefrontal cortex lights up to solve the problem; add more, and it just goes dark, like a blown circuit breaker that can’t take in any more information. Roy F. Baumeister, social psychologist and author, calls this decision fatigue, which occurs after a long session of decision-making, and results in low self-control and willpower. So, give yourself a clear path forward by setting a few reasonable priorities.    Once you realize that doing it all won’t make you happier, it’s easier to pare down your list!  Pencil in what you must do, and what you most want to do, and add in a little relaxation time if you can.  Write it all down, or place it in an online calendar where you can easily access and share it. 

Cope Better

Finally, listen to your body and take a break when you need it, with these suggestions:

Have five minutes? Squeeze in exercise with stairs instead of the escalator, to help keep your stress hormones (like cortisol) down all day.

Don’t have five minutes?  Drink a tall glass of cold water. Most of us walk around dehydrated without knowing it, which impairs problem solving, decision making, and can make us eat too much. 

Don’t have one minute?  Try Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s tip of breathing between the rings of the telephone and answering on the third ring. Much easier than sitting down to meditate…  

And, if your budget allows, treat yourself to some time-saving splurges like food delivery or help with the yardwork — so you can enjoy a little more holiday relaxation.

Wishing you and your family the best, but not the busiest, holiday season ever!