4 Holiday Survival Tips for People with Chronic Illness

These stress-relieving tips can help chronically ill folks enjoy a better and happier holiday season.

Family at home at Christmas time, working mother, father using tablet with son

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I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2019. Initially, I experienced a lot of fear. I didn’t see many examples of other Black people living with MS. I worried I would never be the same, and that the life I once knew was over. But I also had questions. I wondered how I could engage in traditions when I often couldn’t feel my legs. Over time, my symptoms subsided, and I am “finding my new normal.” But I had to learn my new needs. I realized this includes figuring out the foods and activities to avoid, finding a way to explain it all to my family, and how to survive the holidays.

For many, the holiday season is lovely. But those of us living with chronic illnesses can find this time of year incredibly challenging. The demands of combating symptom-inducing colder weather, carb-heavy foods, and travel can be stressful. The looming threat of COVID-19 that continues to spread during family occasions hasn’t made things any easier.

I’ve found that planning for these makes the holidays emotionally taxing. It’s upsetting when you cannot engage in the activities you enjoy. The stress of completing every holiday “must-do” can exacerbate symptoms—resulting in increased pain, exhaustion, and symptom flare-ups. As each year passes, I better understand how I need to prepare for such a stressful time of year.

 Here are a few tips I developed to survive the holiday season.

Establish boundaries on what tasks you can do during the holidays.

I’ve learned that most times, it helps to get in front of a difficult situation and the best way to do this is by establishing boundaries from the start. It can be uncomfortable, especially as a Black woman of Trinidadian heritage. But having an open and honest conversation about your needs gets the fear out of the way. Research shows how setting boundaries can benefit physical and mental health.

For example, I let my family know I could not cook multiple dishes for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I love cooking, but it doesn’t always love me back. My chronic illness journey has taught me too much time spent in the kitchen will dissipate my energy for days after. Setting clear boundaries and expectations helps to cut any confusion or disappointment. Another boundary is learning how to say “no.” Many chronically ill folks have an issue saying this word. We fear it makes us seem weak or unreliable. No one wants to be the bad guy. But, ultimately, setting that boundary helps me have more bodily autonomy.

Set the tone for how and if you're going to discuss your chronic illness. 

I established that I was not to discuss my diagnosis during a larger family event. When and if it comes up in conversation, I try to discuss it as quickly as possible. It has been the elephant in the room for years now. There is so much dread and sadness whenever the topic arises. Also, I am very intentional about aspects of my illness. I chose not to discuss relapses. Flare-ups are common. But my family does not take that news well. It induces more fear. I find it easier to be particular about what I choose to speak about than to anticipate others' emotional discomfort.

Life with a chronic condition is unpredictable. And even though there are still moments when I'm hard on myself, I’ve learned to remind myself that this is my new “normal,” and I am doing my best.

Remember to rest.

I’ve found that even after setting boundaries and saying no, I can still get wrapped up in the busyness of the holidays. Over the years, I’ve learned it’s important to prioritize getting enough rest. Research shows poor sleep health can exacerbate chronic illness. One thing about me, I’m going to get my rest. I’ve always joked that my first love is sleep. And after being diagnosed, that love only deepened. It might sound cliche, but I have to remind myself and others of the phrase, “remember you can’t pour from an empty cup.” Not allowing yourself to rest is only a disservice to you.

Give yourself grace.

When you have a chronic disease, you may feel a lot of guilt, especially if you have to cancel plans or break a commitment to your family. I’ve only recently started to see other Black women with MS who remind me it’s ok. Flare-ups happen no matter how many things you try to prioritize or lists you try to follow. Life with a chronic condition is unpredictable. And even though there are still moments when I'm hard on myself, I’ve learned to remind myself that this is my new “normal,” and I am doing my best. If I can offer one more piece of advice to people with chronic illnesses who are trying to survive the holidays, I would like to treat yourself like how you treat other people. We are so much nicer to others than ourselves. We need to switch that.

So as the holiday season approaches, remember to put yourself first. We can enjoy all the festivities without jeopardizing our health in the process.

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