For Home Cooks, Burnout Is a Reality This Holiday Season

It’s time to put aside the idea of a perfect Thanksgiving dinner.

By Tejal Rao

If we’d talked this time a year ago, I would have told you with giddy enthusiasm why I always, every year, without fail, make not one but two kinds of potato dishes on Thanksgiving (one mashed, one roasted).

I would have explained, in excruciating detail, why I choose certain varieties of potatoes (the particular starch levels of these potatoes, the importance of these levels to their final textures), and how I treasure the chaotic vibes of a big holiday that I wasn’t brought up with, but adopted as an immigrant when I moved to the United States.

This year, a day or two in the kitchen for a feast that disappears in minutes is unimaginable. I don’t think I’m supposed to admit this here in the Food section, but when I think about cooking, I’m filled with dread.

People all over the country are exhausted by the losses of the pandemic, police violence and continuing protests against it, and the tensions of the election. Even nerdy cooks who found pleasure in freezing sheets of pie dough a week ahead of time (yes, that’s me) might find the approach of the holiday overwhelming.

When our bodies experience stress, there’s an instant neurological and physiological shift as endorphins, epinephrine and glucocorticoids rush in. Our blood pressures rise. Our brains focus on the present moment. These tiny, temporary shifts work together to sharpen our senses and help us cope with an obstacle.

“Burnout is when that stress is really prolonged,” said Saumya Dave, a psychiatrist in Atlanta. “We have mechanisms in place to survive, but when the stress is drawn out, when we don’t have an end in sight, when we’ve been stretched too long, too thinly, for an uncertain period of time, it’s burnout.”

Long-term stress is toxic. It can weaken the immune system, increase blood pressure and contribute to insomnia, memory loss, depression and more. It results in total emotional exhaustion, accompanied by a sense of detachment and powerlessness.

For women of color, particularly Black women, as well as other marginalized groups, burnout is nothing new, but this year it’s been amplified and persistent.

Christine Samala, a first-generation Filipina-American living in San Francisco, is an early-stage investor and part of a community potluck group. She’s the kind of cook who makes 100 lumpia at a time, filling the rolls with pork and beef, water chestnuts, celery and carrots. She preps huge piles of vegetables to make her version of the noodle dish pancit, and she used to delight in having friends over for chicken adobo.

“I want to look forward to Thanksgiving, but I can’t,” she said. “I’d be pretty disappointed to get my hopes up, and in a week or two or three, it might not seem like a good idea anymore, for everyone’s health and safety.”

In the meantime, Ms. Samala is in charge of feeding herself, her wife and her baby, and the family is experiencing what she describes as a mix of boredom and decision-making fatigue. “When it comes to logistics and assessing risk — are we going to do Instacart? Are we grocery shopping in person? What businesses are we going to support?”

In “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle” the authors Amelia and Emily Nagoski note that finding meaning through goals, acts of service and simply being in loving relationships can be the best way to build a support system that buoys you when you’re stressed (and just works to make life better when you’re not).

And most therapists recommend the simplest social tools within reach to alleviate day-to-day stress, before it becomes unmanageable. Taking an exercise class, talking with friends over brunch or going to see a movie, are all small, reliable ways to find moments of joy and potentially break the cycle of stress in your mind and body.

“But a lot of these things just aren’t available to us right now,” said Yana Sercarz, a psychotherapist in Los Angeles. “We can’t go hang out with our friends. We can’t go to the gym. And a lot of people are really suffering because of that.”

Ms. Dave, the therapist in Atlanta who sees her patients via Zoom, said she has noticed an increase in burnout, but that it’s different this year, with a deep sense of grief running through it.

Across the country, Americans are mourning the deaths of more than 238,000 people. Millions more have lost their businesses and their jobs, deferred starting college, canceled trips to see family, or celebrated major life events like weddings and births in isolation.

“In some cases, it’s grief for the future people thought they would have,” said Ms. Dave. “This is a unique type of grief, and there’s so much we don’t know about how to cope with it yet.”

There’s no easy fix, but she asks patients to think about what gave them a sense of joy before the pandemic, to identify exactly what made them feel anchored or provided a sense of stability.

For me, it’s cooking for friends who are in and out of the house all day, and reporting in people’s kitchens, asking them questions, learning about them. These things are currently out of the question, but Ms. Dave said she brainstorms smaller, more realistic versions of those activities, and finds ways to integrate these into her patients’ lives.

Instead of dinner, joining friends in watching new episodes of “Star Trek: Discovery” each week while group texting with them could be an unexpectedly fulfilling replacement. A brunch date with a best friend, for example, might turn into a weekly phone call set in the calendar.

“Some sort of daily ritual, even if it’s just five minutes long, can signal the transition from work to nonwork time,” Ms. Dave said, “and help take you out of that mind-set of going from one thing to another with a sense of detachment.”

She suggests a ritual that engages multiple senses, such as warming essential oils, or lighting candles. It can’t be meeting friends at a bar after work, but maybe it could be mixing a drink and garnishing it with nice long citrus peel, then taking it to the backyard to sip, away from the phone and news apps. For so many, even that small of an amount of time and personal space is a luxury, and it can function as a kind of reset button.

This clear shift in expectations, in expecting far less for and from ourselves, isn’t easy, especially amid the relentlessly cheerful seasonal messaging — How to be the perfect hostess! Tips for making this the most perfect Thanksgiving ever!

Those kinds of headlines are always a touch unhinged, but this year? Every flawlessly styled photo of a set table, every perfect, crusty-edged casserole, is a reminder of the insurmountable gap between the fantasy of the holiday and its much darker, messier reality.

“We’re not going to be able to get together the way that we may have, and that’s a hardship,” Ms. Sercarz said. “We can acknowledge that it’s hard, and we cannot expect so much of ourselves.”

Home cooks rarely tend to their fatigue in the kitchen with any urgency — dinner has to get on the table, period. And it’s easy to minimize stress in comparison to the more visible and immediately threatening hardships around us.

But acknowledging the burnout is important precisely because it’s so pervasive, and so quietly destructive.

It’s also the first step to ditching the idea we’ve been sold, over and over again, of what the perfect Thanksgiving should look like — a minimum of 30 guests and two kinds of potato dishes! — and instead, celebrating one that’s possible, however different, and however small.

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