How to Deal with Seasonal Stress and Chronic Pain
Candles, cookies, and...chronic pain? The holidays sparkle, but they sometimes light us up with stress, too, and for those of us with chronic pain, that can be anything but merry. While the holidays can get to almost anyone, with up to 88% of Americans reporting tension around times that are “supposed” to be special, the expectations, pain triggers, and even the intensity of positive emotions during celebrations can be particularly trying for those dealing with chronic pain.
If that sounds like you or someone you care about, don’t despair. You can create a strong foundation for the holidays that’s suited to you and whatever you’re going through, so you can enjoy special times as much as possible without worrying as much about tension.
Why the holidays can make stress worse and what stress does to the body
The holidays contain no shortage of potential stressors. Low energy levels, lots of decorating, loads of meals to prepare, a household full of family and friends, potentially charged interactions, high expectations, extra alcohol and sugar, COVID concerns, too many details to track, not to mention the pressure to pull everything off with elegance and perfection...there’s just no end of things that might increase your chronic pain.
Why does it have to be that way?
A combination of things can make stress more pronounced during the holidays, and a lot of that stress can be related to changes and disturbed routines, which might make it a struggle to exercise, eat and sleep like usual. Changes in routines are hard, especially if medications you’re on are already making it a little difficult to concentrate or multi-task. Even positive emotions like joy can wear you out and contribute to stress, since intensity alone takes extra energy to process.
Stress can ramp up headaches, release the stress-related hormone cortisol, and trigger other chemicals that make inflammation worse in your body, which can all add up to a growing sense of dread, pain flares, and persistent aches and pains.
Ways to manage holidays stress
While many stress management techniques can help, a certain amount of extra stress is nearly inevitable, so it’s better to prepare for heightened stress than try to avoid it altogether. Don’t try to be perfect. Do try to pace yourself, be kind to yourself, take strategic breaks when needed, and create chances to appreciate what’s going on around you.
Some of the tips below could help:
- Accept how you feel: However you’re feeling, even if it’s not how you want to feel, is still real. Try to accept even the awkward, painful emotions. If you’re mourning, feeling sad, are disappointed by people who don’t seem to show up for you, or feel overwhelmed, honor those emotions. Don’t try to force yourself to feel differently or you’ll wear yourself out faster.
- Know your comfort zones: Before the holidays actually start happening, think about your priorities so you can make sure the things that really matter to you get enough time and attention. If you need to set any boundaries or expectations with certain people, practice mentally ahead of time so you’re ready to advocate for your needs clearly and with acceptance for whatever those needs are.
- Say goodbye to perfection: Trying to be perfect is a sure recipe for more stress! Give yourself some relief by aiming for “good enough” instead of perceived (impossible to actually achieve) perfection. And sometimes the slip-ups make for the best stories later on!
- Stick to your plans: Decide ahead of time what you can afford to spend, in terms of time and money, and stick to those decisions. Be kind but be firm. The holidays have a way of hustling you into decisions you don’t really want to make. It’s OK to save some money during the holidays, and it’s OK to say ‘not this time around’ to certain parties or to leave social get-togethers exactly when you planned to.
- Take a quiet minute: Feeling a bit too “muchness”? Maybe too many people in too small a space, maybe too much noise? It’s OK to sneak away for a quiet moment alone. Focus on a plant you like, a pleasant view, or something that cheers you up in even a small way. Take a deep breath. Pinch the spot between your index finger and thumb, as this can sometimes summon a little relief. If you need to, go for a peaceful walk. You will move through this moment and the rest of the ones to come.
- Anticipate what you’ll need: If a lot of people will be around, build in some break days (or break hours, at least). If you think you might feel lonely, plan to bolster yourself by inviting over a special friend, scheduling a telephone call, or stocking up on excellent books, music, movies, podcasts, or other ways to feel cared for. Maybe you can do some babysitting or petsitting, if you feel up for it, as a present to others? Maybe you can volunteer for a few hours? Helping others sometimes ends up helping yourself the most, since it can add a sense of meaning, purpose and companionship. (Remember, too, that it’s possible to volunteer online if that’s better for where you’re at with pain.)
- Delegate: Need help cooking? Assign certain tasks to others. If you’ll need your driveway shoveled, plan for that ahead of time. Make reservations ahead of time, too, if you’re going out, so you’re not disappointed. Try to make everything as smooth as possible so you don’t have to feel frazzled in the moment.
- Come up with creative ways to win: Try an Instant Pot or other way to cook without too much effort. Need to wrap presents? Buy spring-loaded scissors, which will be kinder on your hands. Look for creative ways to secure little wins.
Ways to increase holiday happiness
Having an enjoyable holiday season isn’t only about controlling stress. It’s also about making as much room for happiness as possible. With that said, see if any of the tips below work for you:
- Keep a strong foundation: Tempting as it is to “reward yourself” by sleeping more, drinking more, eating more sugar-packed treats, or skipping exercise, one secret to an excellent holiday season is enjoy treats in moderation while still working out, eating well, and getting a full night’s sleep. That consistency will keep you feeling more stable and more able to weather whatever else happens.
- Ask for what you need: Even if it feels awkward or embarrassing, ask for exactly what you need. Sometimes people feel more excited about helping when they know precisely what the request is. Plus, feeling supported by the warmth of good friendship will help the holidays shine all the more.
- Savor even the little things: A pine-scented candle, a tart cranberry sauce, some beautiful music...the holidays are tucked full of tiny details that can increase your happiness. If you’re feeling a burst of pain, try giving yourself other sensory input to concentrate on. It may sound silly, but the roughness of pinecones, the smoothness of velvet, and the smell of warm cinnamon, vanilla, or citrus can provide moments that feel like tiny oases.
- Do a little less: Make “smaller” plans, give yourself permission to do a little less, and sink into each moment a little more. Give yourself the chance to notice what’s going on right now, as opposed to thinking about past holidays or worrying about what the next few hours or days may bring.
- Fit in gratitude: Maybe you feel like writing cards to friends who are far away, or to your care team. Maybe you’d like to notice a few special things every day and write them down or quietly note them in your head and think about them while you’re falling asleep. Maybe you’d like to make a donation or volunteer. You don’t have to force yourself to feel cheerful and positive, but it’s good to know that practicing gratitude and giving back tends to boost your happiness, too.
- Try some small hacks: Honey, mango and spicy foods can help relieve stress. Putting your phone down can help you focus. Drinking a glass of water and taking ten deep breaths can help if you feel tension building up. If the tension is bad, do ten minutes of yoga or ask for a shoulder massage. Don’t forget your vitamin D, as that can help compensate for low light levels.
- Get creative: Invent a new holiday tradition. Try to go on a personal “treasure hunt,” looking for things to make you laugh, or at least smile. Invite others to gift you with experiences or time spent together instead of more material things. Set up your bedroom as a calming refuge so you always have somewhere calming to go.
Here at Clearing, we wish you the very best for a low-pain, cheer-filled holiday season, and we’re here for you.
This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your individual needs and medical conditions.