Holiday displays and shopping opportunities have been up since before Halloween. The continuous holiday carols, light displays, and commercials are enough to drive anyone to distraction. All of the constant stimulation revolving around the winter holidays can cause stress. People are worried about work and family commitments, attending events, and buying the perfect gifts. And, that can be even doubly so for those who battle chronic pain. From talking to your relatives about your pain condition beforehand to creating new traditions, here’s ten ways to banish holiday stress this season.
What causes holiday stress?
According to Prevention.com there are a number of things that cause people in the U.S. to become stressed over the holidays.
- Big crowds and lines
- Weight gain
- Debt from holiday spending
- Not getting along with family
- Holiday music
- Attending parties and events
Holiday stress tends to disproportionately affect women who are struggling to do it all. Often faced with a delicate balancing act between work and family, even during the rest of the year, the added burdens of ensuring a perfect holiday can be overwhelming. Plus, many pain conditions disproportionately affect women, especially those like fibromyalgia and lupus.
But the holidays don’t need to be mired in stress, anger, or anxiety. By shifting the focus and mindset, the holidays can become a time to relax with friends and family and recharge during the long nights of winter.
1. Find a better way to talk about your pain to relatives
Despite the large number of people who live with chronic pain, those who don’t endure the struggle have little idea of what daily life is like with pain. Even close relatives may not understand why you’re not feeling well or why you can’t fully participate in holiday preparation activities.
Around the holidays, when you may be hosting or visiting far-off relatives who don’t see you very often and who aren’t exposed to the day-to-day realities of living with chronic pain, explaining how you feel may be difficult. Just like medical conditions vary from person to person, people respond to the idea of chronic pain differently.
Some people may be extraordinarily compassionate and understanding. Others may recommend this cure or that remedy and make you feel like you’re not doing enough to heal your condition, even though they know little about your body and all the trials and tribulations you’ve gone through trying to feel better.
And for others, the idea of living with a chronic condition may be so far beyond their grasp, that no matter how you try to explain, they will not understand.
Nevertheless, trying to explain chronic pain to relatives is important. Sharing your experience of life with loved ones, the good times and the bad, is essential for strengthening bonds and feeling known. Even if relatives aren’t close, there are some things they should know, especially in preparation for the holidays.
Here are a few ways of explaining pain to others and tips for simplifying holiday preparations to make them more fun for everyone.
Explain your condition from a scientific perspective
If you have fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, or some other definable, primary condition, consider giving relatives information about this disease. Explain how it affects the body, what the common side effects are, and how it impacts your daily life.
If you have a more vague cause of pain, perhaps from old injuries or surgeries, explain how you came to be in pain and what you believe the causes are. Try to describe how the sensations manifest in your body, and how those sensations limit activity.
Ironically, people with limited information about conditions sometimes have very firm, definite opinions about what it’s like to live with pain and how it might be managed. Dealing with well-intentioned but uninformed people can be frustrating, but try to stay calm and educate them.
Don’t feel like you need to justify yourself; you don’t. However, it can be helpful if your relatives understand what it’s like to live with pain.
Describe the treatments you’ve tried or currently incorporate into your life
Treatments may involve medicine or lifestyle modifications, such as diet or meditation. This description isn’t because you need to justify yourself. However, explaining to people all the things you’ve been through in an effort to find relief can begin to help people understand your condition and just how severe and difficult to manage it is.
You may talk about medications you’ve taken and the unwelcome side effects they brought. Or, you may mention how you’ve tried to start an exercise program but were derailed by an extreme bout of pain. You may talk about how you had a fun weekend planned, but a flare-up sidelined you and left you on the couch instead of out enjoying your life.
Describing the steps you’ve taken and tangible effects of pain on your life can help relatives understand the condition and what it’s like to live with chronic pain.
Understand there are some people who won’t understand
No matter how fully you try to explain the reality of living with pain, some people will inevitably not understand. Know that it’s not your job to convert their thinking. Or your emotional burden to take on. It can be difficult dealing with people who aren’t empathetic, but try to remember their inability to comprehend is their problem, not yours.
Above all, be kind to yourself and don’t blame yourself for having a medical condition. It’s not your fault. You do the best you can, even during the holidays.
2. Be in the moment
People who feel stressed around the holidays are also more likely to experience stress other times of the year. It is important to separate the actual holiday from the feelings you have. Rather than focusing on the past or fretting about the future, try to spend more time in the present.
3. Take ownership
Often the reason for added holiday stress is the incessant need to please everyone. You have obligations to parents and grandparents on both sides of the family. You want to make sure your kids get everything they’ve asked for. Friends throw parties and even your office will have holiday events, and you’ll feel the need to attend all of these even on your worst pain days.
Rather than saying yes to everything, take some time to figure out the things you really want to do and focus only on those. Feel free to say no and create a holiday that you and your immediate family can enjoy.
4. Involve the whole household
You want to get everything right but you simply can’t do it all. Instead, make sure everyone in your home has their own list of jobs to do to help with the planning and execution of a stress-free holiday event. Kids love to help and even little ones are capable of a number of small tasks. Husbands and wives or partners should be willing to help each other out with anything that is necessary.
Asking for help can be difficult for some people. You may feel guilty for always asking, or you may be the type who enjoys being independent and not needing assistance. When it comes time for the holidays, all the cooking, baking, and other preparations can leave you feeling exhausted and stressed though. Stress and exhaustion can easily exacerbate chronic pain, so it’s important to manage these situations before they get out of hand by asking for help.
If you have relatives visiting, start the conversation before they arrive. Explain your condition, its symptoms, and then gently asking for help going grocery shopping, cooking, and cleaning up after people once they arrive—which can become a lot of work with a full house!
Opening up conversations ahead of time is helpful because it allows things to get started on the right foot. It gives people time to think and absorb information while still in the comfort zones of their own homes. Then, when people come together, the spirit of collaboration and compassion is more likely to be present.
With your own family who sees your struggle every day, it will hopefully be easier to ask for help cleaning the house in preparation for relatives. Let family know that you’re excited to spend time with everyone, but that you need help to make the experience enjoyable.
5. Take focus away from gifts
People who spend more time worrying about getting the right gift or spending enough money are less likely to report feelings of being in the holiday spirit. Gift giving is great if it is something that makes you feel good but as soon as it becomes too stressful it should take a back seat.
Instead of trying to buy everything for everyone try drawing names from a hat and only buying a gift for one family member.
6. Play restful games
The most important thing to focus on during the holidays is your connection to your family. Playing games is a great way to get everyone involved.
It also engages people more than just eating or opening gifts. You can pull out family favorite board or card games or you could create a scavenger hunt, trivia night, or something more creative.
7. Have a quiet refuge to rest
Sometimes during holiday visits with relatives, you may feel the need to escape the chaos and lie down in a quiet room.
If you’re at home, this is easier; you might retreat to your bedroom or the den. If you’re visiting someone’s house, it can be helpful to let the host know in advance, and ask where an appropriate place may be. Say something to the host like, “I’m so looking forward to spending time with you over the holidays, but sometimes pain strikes and I feel overwhelmed. It’s helpful during those times to lay down for a while. Please don’t be offended if I feel the need to leave the group from time to time. Is there a place available to rest?”
If you find yourself sleeping on a couch or in other tight quarters, perhaps there’s a bedroom you can retreat to, not to sleep, but just to get some quiet resting time away from the crowd. Most people will understand this. Even people without chronic pain typically need alone time, so you don’t need to worry about offending people.
Further, many people experience holiday stress because they will have to face uncomfortable situations that they would rather avoid. Family feuds are not uncommon but can make the holidays painful. There are expectations of behaviors and bad feelings that can fester. Before the holiday gathering, take time to talk to the person with whom you disagree, if you feel comfortable doing so. Ask them to call a truce just for the event so everyone can be stress free and have a good time. If they won’t use your refuge when you need it.
8. Create fun family traditions
Decorate your house, make cookies, tell stories by the fire; anything that relaxes the whole family and puts the focus on the spirit of the holidays rather than the consumerist ideals we’ve come to expect. Spend time together sipping hot cocoa and talking about all the reasons you love the winter holidays just to relax and take time out of the busy schedule.
Also consider giving to others to reduce holiday stress. Volunteering and charity actually makes us feel better. The holidays are a time when many people in the community feel more vulnerable. Make helping and giving to others a priority for your holiday season. It is also a great lesson for kids and will help you better understand the meaning of the holiday spirit.
9. Don’t give up your typical stress-relieving routines
Holiday stress makes us want to rush around making more commitments. This often means that our regular routines get out of balance. We have a hard time eating right or exercising when we feel we have to do everything.
Make a schedule and don’t give up your weekly yoga class. While avoiding holiday eating can be difficult, make a commitment to healthy food when you’re between parties.
10. Focus on joy
The primary take away for being able to enjoy your holidays with relatively low stress is to focus on the joy of the season.
Make a plan for joy by deciding what is most important to you and letting go of the things that don’t work. Recognize that failure happens sometimes and what is most important is what we do with the lessons we’ve learned from it. Also know that you’re not being selfish by wanting what is important to you or focusing on keeping yourself healthy and happy during the holiday season.
Winter will turn to spring again and the holidays will come around once a year whether we want them to or not so we don’t need to make sure every single year is picture perfect.
How can you reduce your holiday stress this season?