Navigating the Holidays with a Chronic Illness

The holidays are a wonderful time of the year, and it can be hard to get into the spirit when you’re living with a chronic illness. While there are a lot of joyful parts about the holidays, there are also some stressful parts. That’s why it’s important to recognize what aspects of the holiday seasons trigger your symptoms and to have a plan in place to reduce them. 

Do the holidays make chronic illness worse? 

Navigating the holidays with a chronic illness can be difficult, especially when it comes to adhering to your diet, routine, and leaning on your support system.  

With holiday events and get-togethers, there can be temptation to abandon the routines that help manage chronic illness symptoms. This can be anything from indulging in foods you wouldn’t normally eat to staying up past your usual bedtime.  

The holidays can bring a lot of pressure, too. If you usually host family and friends, you want to do everything possible to make their experience memorable and enjoyable. If you’re used to doing these things yourself but have found your symptoms are worse this year, you might have trouble asking for help or saying no when you need to. 

There is often stigma around chronic illness, especially “invisible” diseases like diabetes, depression, or fibromyalgia. You may not feel comfortable discussing your illness with family and friends, and so you keep your symptoms to yourself and isolate. 

Fortunately, it is possible to enjoy the holidays despite having a chronic illness by prioritizing self-care and making time for the things that matter most to you.  

Why is self-care necessary with a chronic illness? 

Self-care has become a bit of a buzzword in the past couple of years. While it often evokes images of face masks and manicures, self-care is the act of maintaining or improving one’s health. This can range from scheduling a massage to setting time aside to visit with a friend or cooking a nourishing meal. Every day we make dozens of choices that move us closer to or further away from better health. 

Self-care becomes especially important during the holidays, and even more so when you have a chronic illness because it’s a way to help reduce and manage stress. Stress is often a trigger for a flare-up or worsening of symptoms. So, as you visit family and friends, buy gifts, or cook meals, consider these tips to help make those tasks less stressful.  

Plan ahead  

Planning ahead can always be helpful when managing a chronic illness. During the holidays, it’s important to plan ahead as early as possible, especially if you have symptoms like pain and fatigue. Breaking up tasks such as packing, cleaning, or wrapping gifts into smaller tasks across multiple days can help you conserve energy.  

Another way to plan ahead is to think about the items you might need to buy, such as toiletries and groceries, and have them delivered. Plan out the meals you are going to make so you can make sure you have everything you need before you start cooking. If traveling is part of your holiday plans, make sure to book travel well in advance and communicate with those you are visiting as they may be able to help. 

Diet  

What you eat can have a big impact on your symptoms and how you feel. The holidays often involve heavy dishes and sugary desserts which can make your symptoms worse. To help keep your symptoms at bay, you might consider asking friends or family to prepare a certain dish or bring your own meals to gatherings.  

Italian Mediterranean diet
Photo credit: G.steph.rocket

Chronic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis can benefit from a Mediterranean diet. This diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats, as well as whole grains and lean proteins. These foods can also help lower inflammation. 

Alcohol consumption can also worsen chronic illness symptoms. While drinking alcohol in moderation is usually safe, heavy drinking can cause health problems. Research has found that alcohol causes intestinal inflammation and impairs the body’s ability to regulate inflammation. It can also interfere with certain medications and acts as a depressant. If you are already living with depression, drinking too much alcohol can make it worse. 

If you aren’t sure what dietary guidelines to follow or how much alcohol is safe for you to consume, always check in with your doctor.  

Rest 

Many chronic illnesses can cause sleep disturbances due to physical symptoms like restless leg syndrome or side effects from medications. Because the holidays tend to throw off our usual routines and schedules, you might stay up later or wake up earlier. You might also spend more time out and about than you’re used to. It can be hard to slow down and find time to rest, especially if you’re trying to get a lot done in a short amount of time.  

If you can, try to keep the same schedule you normally have. You might have to turn down invitations for events that are later in the day so you can go to sleep on time. Try to find time to rest during the day too. Even a power nap  can help you reduce stress and recharge your batteries. 

Make sure you have a designated place to rest, whether it’s at home or at a relative’s house. Be sure to communicate with others that you need time to yourself and why. This can be helpful for minimizing interruptions when you need some peace and quiet.  

Most importantly, listen to your body to know when it’s time to pause rather than trying to push through. Take as many breaks as you need to get through each day. 

Boundaries 

For many people, the holidays are the only time of year they can see family and friends. That means you might have a lot of different events to go to or places to visit in a short time. It can be overwhelming to manage many obligations and relationships. 

Don’t feel like you have to say “yes” to every invitation that comes your way. It’s OK to turn down events that you do not feel physically or mentally up to. It’s also important not to let yourself feel guilted into doing something you don’t want to or are not able to do. You can find a compromise like scheduling video calls instead of in-person visits, or you can check in when you are feeling up to it. 

You can also set boundaries in your own home. If you usually host guests in your home, set a specific time for them to visit, like 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. If you find you are not up for having guests spend the night, it’s OK to ask them to make other arrangements. Make sure you give them enough time to look for somewhere else to stay as hotels can fill up quickly during the holidays.  

Remember that “no” is a complete sentence. You are allowed to prioritize the events that are the most important to you without having to explain yourself. You are allowed to set limits for how much time you want to spend at a certain event or with certain people.  

Share as much (or as little) as you feel comfortable with  

Talking about your condition can relieve some stress, but only if you feel comfortable with it. Talk to trusted friends and family members ahead of time about any accommodations you might need or any limits you might have. You are not a burden if you need extra help, nor are you being difficult by asking for what you need.  

It can be helpful to have someone you can depend on to help you through the holidays. There may be times where  you don’t feel comfortable doing certain things yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask them for help  if you need it. if you don’t feel comfortable leaving an event early, consider having a “code word” or an agreed upon time limit that lets them know when it’s time to leave.  

If you don’t feel comfortable sharing too much about your condition, that’s OK too. You can tell someone that you would rather not discuss it at this time, but you will share when you’re ready. Remember, not everyone needs, or deserves, to know everything.  

Keep track of medications 

AM PM pill organizerIt’s important to stay on top of any medications you take to manage your chronic illness, especially if they need to be taken around the same time every day. The holidays can get busy and it’s easy to lose track of time. It can be helpful to set a reminder on your phone or smartwatch. 

You can also get a weekly pill organizer and set out your medications for each day. Many of these pill organizers have AM and PM compartments. If you need to take your medication more frequently, you can find options that have three or four compartments per day. 

Stay in touch with your doctor 

Be sure to reach out to your doctor if you feel like you are having trouble managing your symptoms, or if they get worse. It can also be helpful to provide your doctor’s information with a trusted friend or family member in case you are unable to reach out to them yourself. Make sure to keep your emergency contacts up to date, too. 

Consider COVID-19 precautions 

With the COVID-19 pandemic still ongoing and new variants emerging, holiday travel and events may look a little different. You might not feel as comfortable flying or being in close quarters with too many other people. If you’re not going too far, you might consider driving or carpooling to your destination.  

If you do have to fly or take a train, precautions such as social distancing, masking, and proper hand washing can help keep you healthy. These measures are helpful for preventing COVID and other illnesses like influenza, which can exacerbate a chronic illness.  

You may want to consider limiting in-person events to a few people and invite others to participate via video calls. You may also want to clean and disinfect surfaces more frequently. These added measures can help keep you and your loved ones safe and healthy.  

Be gentle with yourself 

One of the most important things to remember as you navigate the holidays is to be gentle with yourself. You might not do everything you set out to do, or you might engage in conversations you would have preferred to avoid. The important thing is that you tried.  

You don’t have to feel guilty about doing what is best for you. No one knows your body or your illness like you do. Being aware of what you need enables you to make the best decisions for your physical, mental, and emotional health. If you need help making those decisions, discuss it with a close friend or therapist.  

As we enter the holiday season, make sure that you check in with yourself often. Ask yourself questions like: 

  • Am I getting enough rest? 
  • Am I eating enough food? 
  • Am I setting and sticking to my boundaries? 
  • Am I prioritizing the people and things that bring me joy? 
  • Am I giving myself grace if I don’t keep my routines? 

Get the support you need  

Navigating the holidays with a chronic illness can be stressful. If you’re having trouble getting through the holidays, know that you’re not alone. At PatientsLikeMe, there are thousands of patients who are also living with chronic illnesses and understand what a difficult time this can be. Join them today and find the support you need to get through the season.  

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