The holidays can certainly be a joyful time. But for people dealing with a chronic illness, there can also be a lot of anxiety. From the crowds at parties and big family gatherings to the rush to buy gifts and navigate hectic holiday travel, November and December can be a whirl. To make matters worse, there’s the stress, unhealthy diet, and lack of sleep that often come along with the season, too.
“The holidays are the most stressful time of the year, and having a chronic illness essentially doubles the impact of that stress,” says Lana Barhum, a health writer with a chronic condition. “Plus, people tend to overindulge, especially with alcohol and foods they wouldn’t typically eat. Both of these are taxing on the body.”
But if you’re conscious of what triggers your condition, you can make smart decisions for your health while still having a good time. Here are some tips to help you get started.
Set Reasonable Expectations
So much of the stress around the holidays comes from the pressure of expectations. “Coping starts with banishing the word ‘should’ from your vocabulary,” Barhum says. “There is a lot of pressure during the holiday season to make perfect memories, have beautiful decorations, prepare the best holiday meal, and give everyone the most memorable holiday.” Rather than overdoing it, focus on enjoying that time with loved ones instead.
Get Started Early
Barhum likes to start gift shopping in October. The stores aren’t as crowded and the items you’re looking for are more likely to still be in stock, so you’ll have less running around to do. It’s also okay to embrace the ease of Internet shopping.
Brandi Clevinger, the blogger behind Being Fibro Mom, loves baking for the holidays but finds that she’s not always feeling up to it. She suggests starting weeks in advance and freezing the cookies or other festive treats, so you can still share homemade baked goods with loved ones, minus the frenzy of baking at the last minute.
Make a List, Check it Twice
Barhum recommends writing down everything you purchase and everything you still need to get, whether it’s holiday gifts, decorations, or the ingredients for a festive family meal. That way you can avoid making multiple trips to the store or forgetting what you need in the haze of rushing around.
Set Your Game Plan
Heading to a party? Find out all the details in advance, suggests Wayne Connell, the founder, president, and CEO of the Invisible Disabilities Foundation. If dinner is going to be served late or if there’s going to be loud music and lots of flashing lights, you can go in knowing what to expect.
So much of celebrating the holidays centers around food, but that can be a major issue for those with chronic illnesses, Clevinger says. Unhealthy foods can limit your body’s ability to heal itself and sugary foods can cause inflammation. But it’s easy to forget all that when you lay eyes on a tray of delicious cookies. Clevinger combats her sweet tooth by writing down a reminder of how those foods make her feel. She also suggests eating before you go to a party, so you’re less tempted by the treats.
Ask for Help
Whether you’re hosting the festivities or are just generally bogged down in the stress of the holidays, don’t be afraid to ask for help, Connell says. For instance, an “advance team” can show up before a holiday gathering to help you with setup and a few friends can stay after to make cleanup more manageable.
Beyond ensuring that your holidays go off without a hitch, getting help can make sure that you’re able to be present for the fun. “It is important for you to let others know what you need from them, so you can save yourself a flare-up of disease symptoms, having to cancel, or not being able to follow through,” Barhum says.
Have an Escape Plan
Hope for holiday fun but plan for the worst, Connell says. “What you don’t want to do is get into a situation where everything goes haywire, and the whole event gets interrupted,” he says. Make sure the people in your life know what to do to help you in an emergency and never leave home without your medical supplies. Also make sure you have someone on hand who can give you a ride home from any situation that gets to be a little too much.
Just Say No
Barhum suggests picking three or four fun things that are most important to you during the holiday season and forgetting the rest. “There is no requirement you attend every single party you are invited to,” she says. “And it’s okay to say no and not to take on tasks that will stress your body and mind. People might not be happy, but they will get over it.”
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