Despite the seasonal pleasures of eggnog, twinkling holiday lights and time spent with loved ones, the winter holidays are likely to cause at least a smidge of angst — and probably more.
Whether it’s buying gifts, preparing special meals, hosting family or finding childcare during the days off of school, the holidays bring their own challenges. If you live with chronic pain and/or exhaustion, the holidays can also be difficult and lonely, experts say.
“If you participate fully [in holiday activities], there’s going to be a lot of payback of maybe even being bed-bound for a while because it just takes its toll,” says Toni Bernhard, author of How to Be Sick. “But if you don’t participate at all, the isolation can be depressing, you know, really hard.”
Seventeen years ago, while on a trip to Paris, Bernhard, a full-time law professor at the time, got sick with what appeared to be a routine viral infection. But she never recovered. To this day, she has chronic fatigue and flulike symptoms. Bernhard eventually had to retire early, which sunk her into a depression. She ultimately had to learn how to live with difficult limitations, she said, including no longer being able to travel to her daughter’s house for Thanksgiving, which she had always loved.
People suffer from all sorts of pain, including back pain, migraines, postoperative pain syndromes and fibromyalgia, notes Deborah Barrett, author of Paintracking: Your Personal Guide to Living Well with Chronic Pain, which outlines a specific process for assessing the factors that may promote well-being and reduce suffering.
Rather than setting the elusive goal of eliminating the pain, Barret advises focusing on identifying factors that make the pain better or worse.
It is also important not to blame yourself for letting others down, Bernhard says. “It took me a lot of years to stop blaming myself, but when I did, it was like laying down a tremendous burden.”
If you suffer from chronic pain and/or exhaustion, take the following quiz to see how much you know about self-care over the holidays.
1. You should let your values guide you when making decisions about what to do or not to do over the holidays.
True or False
2. People living with chronic pain should avoid making plans over the holidays and be spontaneous instead.
True or False
3. Family and friends cannot really help you with your chronic pain over the holidays.
True or False
4. The more ways you find to stay engaged in activities that you enjoy, the more your pain will bother you.
True or False
1. True. People living with chronic pain and/or exhaustion need to decide where to “spend their pain,” says Barrett, who provides individual psychotherapy and runs skills groups for people who live with chronic pain. Think about your values, she adds. If you absolutely want to get together with your family over the holidays, then do it. You are going to experience pain whether you are with them or not, and years down the line, you will remember the time spent with your loved ones. Once you make a plan, think about the tools that you can bring along to improve your comfort and reduce your pain, Barret advises. If you are traveling to visit family, for example, will you have access to a pool or yoga room? Is there anything else that you can do while there or bring with you to reduce the aversive sensations? (She prefers to use the word “sensation” instead of “pain” because just hearing the word “pain” makes her feel worse.)
The trick, no matter what you choose to do, is to have compassion for yourself. “… We don’t benefit from beating ourselves up,” Barrett says.
2. False. It is important for people with chronic pain to plan out their holiday schedules in advance, Bernhard states. You may not stick to those plans precisely, but it helps to have some ideas.
Decide what you can and can’t do and prioritize, Bernhard suggests. For example, if you are invited to four holiday parties, maybe it is better to attend only one. This way, you can enjoy it without overextending yourself, which could cause more pain. Also, come up with alternatives to activities that involve exertion. Instead of shopping in stores, Bernhard shops online.
“When you are in chronic pain, there’s a lot of stuff you have to let go, and it’s part of pain management,” Bernhard says.
3. False. There are things that family and friends can do to help a person in chronic pain over the holidays, Barrett says. Those around you need to understand that just because they see a person in chronic pain doing something physical, they cannot assume that the person is able to continue doing it.
Also know that not everybody will understand and support your limitations, Bernhard says. It can be painful when somebody does not believe that you are in pain, she says. Nobody wants to be treated like they are exaggerating or pretending, but it is crucial not to expect everybody to be on board with your needs, she says. “When people are insensitive about others’ health limitations, it’s about them, it’s not about you,” Benhard asserts. “It’s often about their own fears about aging and sickness and pain.” It’s OK to feel sad, but be specific about the reason — for example, that it’s hard for you to hear that someone does not believe your pain. “That’s acknowledging your suffering and almost soothing yourself by speaking to yourself kindly about it,” Bernhard says. But try hard not to let that person affect how you think about yourself or the decisions that you make for yourself, she emphasizes. First and foremost, you need to take care of yourself.
4. False. When you are engaged in something that feels meaningful or distracting, your mind can only do so many things at once, so you’ll be less aware of the pain, Barrett says.
Try visualizing a pain gate. When the gate is open, you feel pain full-on, she explains, but when you find ways to partially close the gate, the pain bothers you less. Engaging in activities that interest you is one way to close the pain gate. “You can’t push the pain away, but what you can do is add things in that are pleasant and you want to engage in,” Barrett says.
Want to learn about additional ways to enjoy the holidays despite chronic pain? Read “10 Ways to Manage Stress at the Holidays,” “Managing the Holidays With Chronic Pain” and “Holiday Gifts Made Easier.”