Navigating Chronic Pain during the Holidays

Living with chronic pain can often be the most debilitating during our busiest times. Unfortunately, the holidays are no exception. Here are tips to help you get through this holiday season.

Holiday Flare-Ups

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 we approach this holiday season, it is important to be mindful of all of these risk factors that directly impact your chronic pain.

How much we are able to do in a given day is drastically different than non-chronically ill holiday-goers. 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 much energy 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.

Each person has a different tolerance to doing holiday activities with chronic pain, which is why we 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.

Preventative Care

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. Though it can be quite challenging when experiencing chronic pain, exercising and hydrating are some of the only ways to preemptively build the strength your body needs to handle these holiday events as well.

Other Preventive Care Practices to consider:

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

We 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.

It can be helpful to document a range of options and resources to use depending on how severe the pain is. Keep a list to refer back to in these moments.

Find a seat or adjust your 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 your needs; for example, watching a holiday movie rather than going to a bar

Ask for help from someone you 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. Try to stay positive by doing more of the things you enjoy when possible, and with people who bring you the most happiness. Avoid isolating yourself from the festivities, even if you can’t fully participate in all of them. Believe it or not, your state of mind plays a large part in your pain experience.

Tips for surviving the holidays with chronic pain

‘Tis the season – for stress, excess, and expectations. No matter what holiday you celebrate, this time of year can be a lot. There are elaborate dinners to prepare, parties to host and attend, presents to find, decorations to hang, families to visit, traditions to respect, and very little time for self-care. But your body doesn’t know that, and chronic pain is, if anything, exacerbated by stress and busy schedules.

Here are some tips to help you survive the holidays, pain or no pain:

1. Be realistic

Tempering the holiday madness may not sound like much fun, but if you start off with unrealistic expectations, then no matter how hard you try, you’ll never quite manage. If your physical ability is less than it was last year, adjust your schedule and chores accordingly. Don’t take on more than you know you can manage – that’s just setting yourself up for failure. Consider what’s practical, and use that as your starting point for all your holiday plans.

2. Share the load

A lot of people try to do it all themselves, but the holidays are meant to be a family affair! So don’t be afraid to share the workload. For parties, consider going potluck. For the main event, share cooking responsibilities by assigning someone to each dish. This ensures that even if you have a bad day, there will still be a good meal for everyone. Ask others to help you decorate, ask the kids to pitch in, or pay the neighbor’s kid to shovel your porch. You do not have to do everything yourself.

3. Shop online

Online shopping is a godsend, especially for those who struggle to fight their way around malls at this busy time of year. And it’s not just for gifts. You can order groceries, alcohol, decorations, and even cards online. This helps streamline your chores and minimizes energy spent.

4. Plan for downtime

When everything feels like a rush, it can be hard to shoehorn in time for yourself. So don’t rely on doing this in the moment – plan for it. Deliberately set aside some time each day to rest and recuperate. Avoid scheduling multiple energy-intensive activities on back-to-back days, and arrange to have a day off after big events. You have to be proactive here, as otherwise your time will fill up without you even realizing!

5. Keep to normal routines

Keeping a routine is tough during the holidays, as many of the touchstones are gone. You may be off work, the kids are home, there could be family staying with you – everything is all over the place! But sticking to your usual, tried-and-tested routines will never matter more. Keep your medication schedule, your sleep schedule, and your exercise routine. This helps you feel as well as you can, each and every day, no matter what else is going on.

6. Be organized

No matter how much you scale back, there is still a laundry list of things to do over the holidays. You can get a lot done, even with chronic pain, if you remain organized. Make a list of all of your tasks, and prioritize them. Know in advance what you can let slide and what has to be done. Set a schedule and stick to it. It’s incredibly tempting to get caught up in holiday cheer and ignore warning signals, so set a hard “out” time for events in advance. This ensures you take care of your body, no matter what your heart may be telling you!

Guilt for dampening loved ones’ merriment can be a big issue, so plan ahead to avoid it. Driving two cars to an event means that you can leave when you need to, without hindering anyone else’s fun. It gives you and your loved ones maximum flexibility. Difficulty driving? Plan in advance to take a taxi or Uber home early.

8. Communicate

You are not the only person who will be stressed over the holidays.  It’s pretty much guaranteed that everyone else is feeling rushed and a little overwhelmed. This may mean that usually sensitive or helpful friends and family suddenly seem less caring, or too busy for what you need. It’s important to understand that this isn’t about you. Remember to cut them some slack for any thoughtlessness, and be clear when stating what you need and what you can and can’t do.

9. Enjoy yourself

With all this talk about “coping” and “managing” and “chores,” it can be easy to forget the holidays are supposed to be a time of fun. So don’t forget to have some! Make time for yourself and what you enjoy, even if it means saying no to someone else. You don’t have unlimited energy or strength, and you can’t do everything. Be kind to yourself, and choose one or two special activities that are just for you.

10. Remember: It’s not a competition

This time of year can sometimes feel like a never-ending exercise in living up to (or failing) other people’s expectations. But it doesn’t have to be. It doesn’t matter how amazing your neighbor’s decorations are, or the face your mother-in-law makes when she sees your store-bought holiday spread. You are in control of what you choose to care about and where you spend your energy; don’t let other people’s abilities, successes, or efforts impact how you feel about what you can do. Being in chronic pain is hard enough without all of the judgement, so let it go. It doesn’t matter what anyone else has done.