When Chronic Pain Makes the Holidays Hurt
It’s holiday season! What does that mean for you? It can be a complicated time for sure. It can mean darker days and higher cases of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD); it can also mean more twinkling lights and glittering moments. It can mean more stress as well as more happiness. And, while it can mean being sick more often or having to deal with pain spikes, it can also bring friends and family together for the kinds of times worth remembering.
How to deal with it all though, especially if chronic pain has already piled enough on your plate?
One way is simply to cut yourself some slack when you need to. Keep in mind: many, if not most, of us struggle with change, even when that change includes happiness and excitement. Change takes energy, and energy, especially when we’re already nearly maxed-out, can feel hard to come by. That’s why it can sometimes feel like work to feel happier or why emotions can sometimes feel mixed, leaving you with a blend of gratitude, joy and exhaustion. If you feel like that, know that it’s normal (a lot of the rest of us feel the same!)
In the meantime, try following a few select strategies for getting through the season in style and health.
Keep pain at bay
Yes, the holidays can bring more stress. And yes, being aware of that feels helpful, but can also keep you focused on worrying about what to do. Budget concerns, family distractions, obligations that make it harder to stick to the routines that work best for you...there are a lot of reasons to worry, including the fact that worrying itself can make pain worse.
What to do instead:
- Stick to a minimum routine: Maybe you can’t do all your usual things, and you know it. You don’t have to drop everything, though. Pick a few cornerstone habits that make you feel better and insist on those throughout the holidays. For some people, that’s reserving half an hour every day for themselves. For others, it’s insisting on their exercise time or the necessity of at least eight hours of good sleep (both of which can help keep pain at manageable levels). You may feel guilty or frustrated by the need to hold firm boundaries this season. But these boundaries will help you have more energy and less pain overall, so you can navigate the holidays in the mindset to best support both yourself and others. Know your pain triggers and visualize what you’ll do to manage them. There. You have plans. You know what to do.
- Put worry in its place: Again, some worry and concern is normal. Too much worry, however, and suddenly you’re feeling under pressure, drained and unable to handle even basic things. Not a good feeling. So carve out more mental and emotional space for yourself by keeping worry where it belongs: in only part of your day. Be thankful, first of all, because worry and anxiety are often behaviors that try to help us plan ahead of time while anticipating the unexpected. Then experiment with different strategies for managing anxiety-related stress. That could be giving yourself 5-10 minute chunks of time to worry or plan, then intentionally shifting into thinking about something else (or, better, doing something else). Or it could be transitioning to thinking about things that make you happy instead whenever these worrisome thinking patterns show up. Often, a walk or stretching session can help.
Ward off holiday hacks, coughs and sore throats
Around the holidays, a lot of us are a bit more stressed than usual. Unsurprisingly, we tend to get sick a little more, as we’re often spending more time around others. Our immune systems are getting battered.
- Bolster your immune system (and your ability to cope with chronic pain) by picking vitamin-rich vegetables and fruit. Don’t cut out the sweets altogether, but try to take a pass on a few of them. Mandarin oranges and clementines can be your friends, since they’re like little vitamin C packs of cheer, so try keeping them close at hand.
- Stretch and stretch again: If you notice you’re cutting back on exercise, at least do sets that have a lot of impact, like stretches or yoga, which can help with your flexibility and breathing patterns, or ab exercises, which help keep your body in alignment, cutting down on aches and strains. Ten or twenty minutes are better than zero.
- Don’t give germs a foothold: Wash your hands. And drink a lot of water. Those actions sound simple, but it’s easy to overlook them. Protect yourself by masking up, keeping your hands washed and moisturized (so they don’t dry out and give germs a chance to enter) and getting enough water and sleep. Give yourself even better chances of escaping illness by getting your COVID and flu shots and boosters.
Find your peaceful moments
What many of the winter holidays share in common is a focus on light and reflectiveness. Holidays help families and communities get through literally darker times with beautiful displays of lights and with rituals, like candle-lighting, gift-giving and special foods that remind us to celebrate each other, together. You can do the same:
- Light up your night: adding splashes of light, both literally and figuratively, can really help. Start by stringing up fairy lights, putting a special candle in your line of sight or handing sparkling ornaments or mirrors to give your space a little lift. Take light to the next level by looking for “spots of light” throughout your day, making the small moments that make you smile. Try to dwell on those, especially when you feel the pain coming on. Research shows that pain seems to lessen when people focus on brighter topics, since you are actively rewiring neural networks in your brain, lessening attention on pain signaling while granting more attention to pathways that can boost endorphins, lessening depression, sensitivity, anxiety, and overall stress and pain levels.
- Good things over gifts: easy to say, hard to do, but not everything is about spending more, doing more, or feeling bad if you don’t feel as though you can give or be “enough.” You’re enough just as you are. Emphasize this by planning fairly simple times with people who lift you up. It could just be board games and popcorn; it could be planning a day together making candles, cookies or something else homemade you can give away. If you’re concerned about the pressure to “buy the best,” why not buy the best socks or soap or candy (something that’s more affordable while still being luxurious)? If you’re feeling particularly alone (which can happen even if you’re technically surrounded by others), take refuge in books, music or, perhaps best of all, helping others by finding volunteer opportunities that match your skills? Scientists have confirmed that altruism is often a pain-fighting mood-booster that can support a sense of purpose and community.
- Pick just one thing: that makes you feel better. That could be an evergreen wreath, a treasured movie, a prayer or poem you’d like to feature at a family gathering, a friend who is a supportive texter or exercise buddy, a dish that makes you feel more at home or a ritual like driving around to look at lights. Plan on granting attention to that one thing while giving yourself a bit of a break from all the other distractions and pressures it’s possible to feel during this time of year.
You’re doing your best. You are doing your very best. Remember that. Also remember that pain levels, emotions and stress shift throughout the day, and that if things feel intense and bad now, they are likely to feel brighter and better later. That may sound bland, but can be a key for getting through rough moods and pain flares. Whatever is going on right now, it will pass. You have some control over what you’re thinking about and focusing on, and by pulling bright moments, cheerful objects, and friends or family close, you’re setting yourself up for better holidays.
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.