10 Tips to Survive a Chronically Ill Christmas
It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The holidays are here and all is festive and bright! But let’s just dig right into it — for those of us with chronic illnesses, it can be more than just merry and jolly; it can feel stressful and exhausting. But let’s declare together that it doesn’t have to be that way! By taking care of ourselves and embracing some simple steps, we can not only feel prepared to embrace every aspect of the holidays, but also to do so with joy, enthusiasm, and most importantly — FUN!
I have so many fun memories from my childhood of Christmases past — you know, before I realized chronic illness was a thing that was going to impact my life deeply. All of that changed in 2012 for me, when I received my first diagnosis. It was the week before Thanksgiving, and a massive lifestyle change was forced upon me. That first holiday season was one of the hardest of my life. I had no idea how to take care of myself or prioritize my health, especially in the midst of a busy holiday a season. And to top it off, my entire family had no idea how to approach all that I was going through.
Thankfully, I’ve learned a lot since those days. Now I look forward to Christmas each and every year, and I firmly believe that you can as well! As I share these ten tips for surviving the holiday season, I hope they bring you hope, relief, and an action plan as you celebrate this merry time!
Tip #1: You’ll Need a Partridge, a Pear Tree, and a Plan of Action
Let’s be real — dealing with chronic illness has, in some ways, made planners out of all of us. We have to think ahead in order to take care of our health. So let’s plan ahead, make the holidays as stress-free as possible, and actually embrace all that this season has to offer. Whether it be planning meals ahead so you don’t have to worry, buying and wrapping Christmas presents early, or coordinating travel, a solid action plan can empower you to really savor the special moments.
To start, set aside at least 30 minutes to think through all of your holiday plans — events, big meals, travel, gifts, etc. — and evaluate areas that need a little more thought or planning to eliminate stress in the long-term. This way you can get done what you need to without dragging your body along last-minute! Healthy planning equals healthier bodies and states of mind.
Tip #2: Peace on Earth; Priorities in Place
Prioritize everything from meal planning, to gift shopping, to visiting friends and family, to fun holiday activities, to making time for rest and your health. Take a hard look at your needs and the things that matter most to you, and then prioritize the things you need to tackle versus the things you can delegate or even let fall by the wayside altogether. We don’t have to do it all! And just in case you need to hear it from someone — it is always, absolutely okay to prioritize your health when you need to! Take care of yourself, friend!
Tip #3: Forget the Fruitcake; Stash Your Own Sugarplums
If you are on a special eating plan for your health needs, don’t hesitate to bring your own food to holiday functions! I know it might feel awkward at first, but best to have your needs met than silently sit by watching everyone else enjoy themselves, or worse — finding yourself eating foods you’ll pay for later in harsh symptoms.
Practically speaking, if others are cooking, and you trust them, make sure to communicate your needs to them ahead of time! If others are cooking, and you don’t trust them, just be proactive and let them know that you’ll be bringing your own foods. Communication ahead of time will help you navigate around hurt-hostess-feelings and unnecessary food surprises.
And for those of you who are in a place where you can indulge a bit without it impacting your health, go for it! This season is meant to be enjoyed and celebrated, so let’s do just that! After all, food can be one of the best parts!
Tip #4: Rockin’ Around the Old Routine
Whether you travel for Christmas or you’re staying home, stick to your routines. Take medications and supplements when you are supposed to. Make sure you are getting adequate rest and stick to your sleep schedule as much as possible. Don’t change around what your body is used to just because of the busyness of the season or because travel may factor into the equation. We thrive best when we give our bodies what they need!
What does this look like practically? Will you sleep better if you bring your own pillow? Pack it. Will you forget to take your medications when your away from home? Set reminders in your phone. Will you be able to still eat foods that support your health when you get to your destination? Run out to the grocery store upon arrival. Will you have a hard time going to bed while everyone’s still up having a good time? Set an alarm to jump in your pjs, and stick to it!
Tip #5: Don’t Let Germs Sleigh Your Immune System
These winter months can sometimes be the worst on our immune systems, and even our emotional and mental states. Do what you can to protect yourself! Do the things that bring you joy and keep you uplifted. Give your body what it needs to keep your immune system working in optimal condition, and try to avoid hotspots for seasonal yuck.
And then…let go of the stress! Yes, let’s prepare and plan and do our best to keep our bodies healthy, but we also need to let go of the fear of catching a hypothetical bug. Stressing out about a potential cold or flu is only going to weaken our whole system. So when we've done everything we can to stay well, it’s time to trust in our health regimens, and say “no” to the fear that tries to rob us of the joy of the season.
Tip #6: Even Rudolph Needs to Rest
Take time to rest! I know it is so easy to view rest as selfish, especially with all the other burdens we carry during this season, but hear me right now — it’s okay to take time to rest! You need it! And if you take care of yourself, you’ll have more to offer your friends and family in return. So take time to rest and do the things that you want to do, and don’t feel pressured to “do it all.” Advocate for yourself when you need to; say “no” if you have to. Don’t get carried away by the season and push it too far because paying for it later just isn’t worth it.
Tip #7: Now Welcoming All Holly, Jolly, Holiday Help
Accept help! We don’t have to do everything on our own! Whether it is a parent or a friend or a spouse that understands the road you walk, make sure they are in your corner all the more during this Christmas season. If they want to go shopping for you, let them. If they want to cook a meal for you, let them. We can’t walk this journey by ourselves; we need others. So let others walk with you not only this holiday season, but throughout your illness journey in general.
Tip #8: Make Room for Merry Misunderstandings
This can be a hard one, but we might as well just get it out in the open — accept ahead of time that you will be misunderstood. Oftentimes the holidays gather us with friends and family who don’t understand the world of chronic illness, and I know how deeply their remarks can cut. I know it can feel painful when people comment on what you are eating or how you are taking care of yourself or the fact that you are choosing to prioritize your health over other things. But you have to do what’s right for your body!
They’re not the ones who are going to pay the consequences of pushing yourself too hard or eating foods you can’t tolerate or staying up too late, so why are you giving their opinion any weight on the matter?
Long before you walk into that family gathering with Uncle Rick who somehow always says something offensive about your illness, accept that it’s probably going to happen, and decide how you want to handle the situation. Give yourself the opportunity ahead of time to decide that those comments don’t need to carry weight for you. This will make it easier to manage when the misunderstandings happen, and will give us the ability to brush it off and give grace to folks who just don’t get it.
Tip #9: Give Yourself the Gift of Gratitude
Everyone talks about thankfulness in November, but by December many of us have tinsel-tunnel-vision that prevents us from reaping the benefits of practicing regular gratitude. The truth is that the holiday season is rich with beauty and joy, but it will undoubtedly bring you at least one or two Scrooges or Blue Christmas moments. The trick is to manage them well and prevent them from stealing your holiday spirit.
Your joy is worth protecting, especially in a season that can cause us all to feel the grief of our illnesses in a unique way. So get serious about the habit of writing down 10 things that you’re grateful for at the end of every day. If you know you’ll have to write them down, you’ll certainly spend your days looking for the good even on your more challenging days. Amidst all the gifts that you give and receive this year, you might just find that the most valuable one is the gift of gratitude you’ve given yourself all season long!
Tip #10: Add Fun to Your Christmas List
This may seem obvious, and to some of you it may even seem impossible, but plan to have fun! It is the most festive time of the year, and with a little extra determination (and the other 9 tips), we don’t have to allow the fact that we have chronic illnesses to steal that from us. Maybe you have difficult memories from Christmases past, or perhaps your stress levels have been off the charts already, but it’s still possible to celebrate, and celebrate well!
Figure out some things that YOU really want to do during this season and make those things happen. Don’t let chronic illness tell your story — YOU get to tell your story. Have fun decorating the tree and creating new memories and spending time with friends and family! Cozy up to watch some cheesy Hallmark movies, and savor the long nights for some extra rest! Sing along to your favorite Christmas songs and embrace the jolly!
We can take our would-be stressful Christmas seasons and trade them in for joyful ones! All it takes is a little bit of planning, prioritizing, and choosing the right mindset! Here’s hoping this year will be filled with some amazing new habits that give way to festive, fun memories for you.
Merry Christmas, my fellow warriors!
Written by: Kelly Halsch
Our world-traveler extraordinaire, Kelly Halsch was born and raised in New York, but now lives and represents the People Hope Tribe in Maryland. Her big dreams include things that many of us can relate to like going to a restaurant and ordering off the menu without making special requests or asking a thousand questions about allergens. Her dogs are her babies, she admits to watching too many episodes of Real Housewives, she’s terrified of ET (yes, from the fictional film), and she’s on a mission to try every local juice bar. But her heart is made alive when she writes, and is there anything more stunning than a woman who sets her mind on encouraging others? We think not.
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