Living with chronic pain can often be the most debilitating during our busiest times. Unfortunately, the holidays are no exception. Here are some personal and proven tips to help you get through this holiday season.
This year will mark my eleventh holiday season living with chronic pain after being diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. Since receiving my diagnosis, I have had to learn how to re-approach the holidays through the lens of chronic pain, illness prevention, and self-care.
Many times, it feels as though our pain intensifies during the holidays. Between shopping, crafting, and cleaning for guests, this season pushes our bodies to their limits and beyond.
When we think of the term “chronic pain,” we often forget that it can decrease or increase in severity, despite the fact that it is a continuous condition. There are many different reasons why chronic pain worsens during the holidays, including:
- An increase in strenuous physical activity, such as shoveling or shopping
- Travel-related injuries and sickness
- Exposure to illnesses through contact with friends and family
- Increase in stress
- Rapid weather changes
As I approach this holiday season, I know I have to be mindful of all of these risk factors that directly impact my chronic pain. Below are the steps that I take each year in order to enjoy the holidays without sacrificing my health.
The Twelve Days of No Spoons
In the chronic pain community, we often refer to our energy levels as “spoons.” The number of “spoons” we have equates to our energy levels. But our spoons disappear quicker because we are chronically ill and/or disabled, and they do not replenish easily.
How much we are able to do in a given day is drastically different than non-chronically ill holiday-goers. Taking stock of your spoons and being aware of how much energy you can realistically spend is the first step to getting through the holiday season.
The holidays are not just a couple of long, intense days. For people with chronic pain, all of the days or weeks leading up to these holidays count, too. This is why it is important to calculate how much energy you can use up before that work party or family get-together.
This isn’t an exact science, of course. There is no perfect equation that will tell us how many spoons we can use one day so that we feel well enough for the next event. But remember that you are the expert on what you are able to handle.
For example, I know that shopping without a mobility aid uses twice as much energy for my body. If I intend on visiting multiple stores, I know that I’ll need to save these “spoons” for later shopping, so I often ask a friend for help or use my wheelchair.
This is one way to plan ahead in preparation for the toll the holidays take on our pain and energy levels. Each person has a different tolerance to doing holiday activities with chronic pain, which is why I recommend keeping a record of your own experiences.
Try tracking possible triggers to chronic pain flares, like lifting heavy items or kneeling to wrap presents. You should also document certain movements, activities, foods or drinks, and stressors that typically affect your chronic pain, both negatively and positively.
It might take some time, but eventually you will begin to build an awareness of the patterns your chronic pain takes. This will act as a guide for you and your pain management for future holidays.
In addition to documenting flare-ups, triggers, and relievers to your holiday chronic pain, practicing preventative care can nurture your body before it experiences an increase in pain.
For my body, I know that I typically need more frequent muscle massages and chiropractic care during this time of the year. Though it can be quite challenging when experiencing chronic pain, I also know that exercising and hydrating are some of the only ways to preemptively build the strength my body needs to handle these holiday events as well.
When I do crafts as gifts or wrap presents, I must also use thumb splints that I don’t wear daily. Even if my thumbs are not actively hurting, I protect the joints that cause me a lot of pain before doing the fine-motor activities that have caused chronic pain flares for me in the past.
For you, preventative care might look similar to my practices. It may also look like:
- Forming a medical plan with your health care providers
- Avoiding alcohol or other dietary triggers (and getting them out of your system early)
- Routinely using ice or heat packs on trouble areas
- Using mobility aids or other necessary medical equipment
- Finding medication or alternative treatments that address your specific pain
Too often, our goal becomes to fix an active problem. Yet, chronic pain can’t necessarily be fixed or treated on the spot. These are ways to address chronic problems before they become more problematic.
Accommodate for Your Body
I encourage preventative care to its fullest extent, but it is also important to recognize that these approaches won’t completely stop pain from happening. When a flare-up does happen during the holidays, this is when it becomes time to accommodate your body’s needs.
I find it helpful to document a range of options and resources to use depending on how severe the pain is. I often keep a list to refer back to in these moments. On my list are options such as:
- Find a seat or adjust my body to a more comfortable position
- Take a break and know when it is time to leave
- Use a mobility aid (tip: keep your mobility aids nearby in a car or coat closet for easy access when these situations arise)
- Suggest more accessible activities to my needs; for example, watching a holiday movie rather than going to a bar
- Ask for help from someone I trust
Creating your own list of go-to options might serve as a reassurance to you in situations where the pain feels intense. Having options in place can also take a lot of stress from painful experiences.
The goal is not just to address the pain in the short-term and protect your body’s wellbeing as we bring in the new year. These measures are also meant as a way for you to find joy, peace, and fun this holiday season and others to come.
Enjoy the Holidays and Feel Good Too
Remember that the holidays don’t have to be a pain. I often feel that if I want to have fun during the holidays, I have to either ignore my body’s needs or miss out on what everyone else is doing.
But excluding myself or pushing myself to do the activities that my body cannot handle is not the holiday experience anybody wants to have, and it leads to further struggles both physically and emotionally.
Having a manageable and enjoyable holiday season with chronic pain is possible. If you have your own tips and tricks, be sure to give the greatest gift by sharing these with others who might be struggling with their own pain problems.
How do you deal with chronic pain over the holidays?
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