‘Twas weeks before Christmas, and your achy body feels the pressures. Shopping, parties, family visits and emotional holiday stressors. There’s no denying the holiday season can be hard on the body and soul. Managing holiday stress with chronic pain can be particularly rough though.
The season is likely to bring family and friends into your home. Or maybe you’ll be traveling to see them. Being a part of the holiday festivities is on the agenda. But if you suffer from a chronic illness, overdoing it with physical activity one day could put you out of commission and trapped in pain for days. Then again, while everyone’s out having fun and you’re lying in bed, that can lead to feelings of depression, isolation, anxiety and guilt.
It can feel like a no-win situation.
Remember: you aren’t alone. There are millions of us who live with chronic pain. We’ll do our best to make it through with a smile and a feeling of gratitude. With some mental preparation and planning, we can all manage our pain and ease our holiday stress.
What is stress?
We hear the term so much that it’s easy to become numb to it. In our minds, we discount it and think, “Yeah, yeah. Everyone lives with stress. No big deal.” But stress is a big deal, not just a media buzzword. Stress can be particularly damaging to those of us living with chronic pain.
It’s a “state of disharmony” that over time can trigger a variety of responses in your body. These responses can “exacerbate your chronic pain symptoms because your body continues to be pushed further out of balance.”
You are built to handle stressors and cope with stressful situations, but living in a constant state of stress depletes your body.
Understanding chronic pain and stress
As chronic pain sufferers know all too well, stress and pain go hand-in-hand. Being trapped in a cycle of chronic pain means you’re already living with stress. The daily fear of more pain, painful movements, triggering pain, wondering when pain will ease, worrying the pain will never stop puts your mind in a constant state of fear. Even during good days, your happiness may be short-lived.
Add in holiday stress and trying to live up to often unrealistic expectations, and it’s simply too much.
In one researched model of pain, the pain itself is the stressor. For example, chronic back pain is “conceptualized as a stress overload resulting in an increased risk for depression, alcohol abuse, or weight gain.” The pain leads to “wear-and-tear” in the body and brain.
In another model, outside stressors further trigger pain. For example, when we are faced with stress that brings on pain such as a migraine, it can leads to a “vicious circle of feed-forward maladaptive physiological responses such as inflammation and brain damage and hence increased vulnerability to persistence of pain.”
Managing holiday stress with chronic pain highlights the clear overlap of physical pain and mental stress. But have no fear: there are ways you can alleviate both and enjoy your holiday.
Easing the burden of pain during holidays
One clue that holiday stress seems to impact everyone is a quick trip to Google. You’ll easily find millions of search results! From self-care tips to calming techniques to managing anxiety and tension, there’s no shortage of advice for combatting holiday stressors. For chronic pain sufferers, it’s a double whammy: normal emotions and psychological strain plus the added burden of pain.
1) Think about what you need
- Is cleaning the house for visitors or preparing a big family meal too taxing?
- Does holiday shopping trigger your chronic pain symptoms?
- What traditional activities can you attend without pain?
2) Make a pain management plan
- Stick to it.
- Ask for understanding.
- Ask for help when you need it.
- Schedule your holiday activities with self-care in mind.
- Remind yourself to not allow holiday stress make you feel guilty for doing what is best for you.
3) Be open with family and friends
- Let them know you’re in pain and you’re doing your best to manage it.
- Give them a heads-up that you hope to participate, but if you can’t, it’s not because you don’t want to be there.
- Avoid pretending you feel good when you are actually in pain.
Traditions can change
Speaking from my experience with a herniated L5, I remember how upsetting the holidays can be. My children were youngsters and we had an annual holiday tradition of visiting a trail of lights at a park in our community. It was a winter wonderland, and we all loved that tradition.
Unfortunately, the trail was about a mile long and there were slight inclines every so often. Normally we’d walk it multiple times, laughing and sipping hot cocoa along the way. But due to my back injury, I was trapped in excruciating pain and I couldn’t physically do it. My boys were devastated. I cried, overcome with emotions and feeling like a failure.
But we pulled ourselves together and came up with a new plan. I would sit on one of the benches near the trail entrance and my family would walk it as usual. I would walk what I could, which wasn’t much, and rest as needed. Once we got there, we all enjoyed the festivities together. Even though it was wasn’t the same, we were able to make it happen. Instead of faking that things didn’t hurt when they did, I began to voice my needs to those close to me.
Managing holiday stress with chronic pain can be quite a challenge. But being honest about my limitations and carving out time to rest made a huge difference. Instead of overdoing it one day and being stuck in bed for three, I was able to participate. It was a step in the right direction for breaking the cycle of stress and pain.
Do you have a story about managing holiday stress with chronic pain?
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