How to Overcome Mental Fatigue During the Holidays
DECEMBER 21, 2016
Shirley Mueller, MD
My husband’s mother would become ill every year during or immediately after December 25. Now, in addition to her usual tasks, she was responsible for buying gifts, wrapping them, purchasing the Christmas tree and decorating it, seeing that the house was festive, organizing and preparing the meal, and, finally, pretending she was happy that her family was joined by guests whom she was obliged to entertain.
It was too much.
In writing this, I see why she became ill. The decisions she had to make in a short period would be challenging for many. Elizabeth, my husband’s mother, was responding to mental overload. And, I must admit, likely some physical exhaustion as well.
Surely at no time is mental fatigue more prevalent than at Christmas—when there are constant psychological and intellectual demands. If shut down occurs, it seems only reasonable.
As it turns out, it is. Scientific studies demonstrate that humans suffer decision fatigue in several ways when one less-than-routine decision is required quickly following another. Holidays, of course, contribute to this juggernaut, but it could be something else that is taxing as well. For example, buying a new home, furnishing it, settling into a new job, or a bevy of other activities. Brain fatigue occurs when it is forced to remain active as mental resources are depleted.
This is the sequence of events: The brain is repeatedly asked to make challenging decisions unlike a regular day when few difficult choices are needed. This leads to selections that are less than optimal and, in fact, this deterioration of decision making increases as the day progresses.
If the brain fatigue is not relieved by rest, sleep, or relaxation, the brain’s executive function (organizational and planning area in the frontal lobes) is less able to carry out what is called self-regulation, essentially the ability to deny oneself for personal greater good.
For example, eating chocolates when one has acne or is overweight, buying luxuries one can’t afford, delaying studying for an important test, etc. If the challenge to make rapid decisions persists in the face of fatigue, decision avoidance can occur. This is a last-ditch effort to handle an overwhelming situation. When this occurs, no decision is made, or if it is, the easy default is chosen so thought is not needed. Therefore, the choice may not benefit the decision maker.
Elizabeth surely didn’t understand all these conflicting factors when she went through considerable distress during the holidays. In fact, they hadn’t even been discovered. So she had to deal with her situation in the only way she knew how—taking to her bed with an undefined illness during which time demands were not made on her. Then her brain had time to recuperate.
Today we know there are several other methods to deal with decision fatigue, such as making important choices early in the day before exhaustion sets in. Another method is to delay decisions that don’t have to be made immediately. Lastly, simplify life as much as possible and ask for help. Others are suffering too and might enjoy the social interaction that simply asking for assistance can bring.