10 Tips on Surviving the Holidays When You Have a Chronic Illness

December 17, 2021

The holiday season can be a magical time of year, things tend to slow down as the year draws to a close. The weather gets colder, the days are shorter, and more time is spent at home relaxing under a blanket watching the newest Netflix hit.

The holidays can also be a time of great stress as we scramble to find the perfect gift for everyone on our list, make sure we have time to attend get-togethers with family and friends and still tend to our day-to-day tasks. For those of us who have a chronic illness or are a caregiver, this stress can be compounded tenfold.

It’s been almost a decade since I’ve received my diagnosis and, in that time, I’ve made it through several holiday seasons, some more successfully than others. Below are the ten tips I remind myself at this time of year to help me enjoy the season while also respecting my boundaries. Trust me when I say that I am a work in progress!

10. Being proactive with your calendar

Keeping up with all the holiday parties, dinners and other social events can be daunting for someone in perfect health. For someone with a chronic condition, trying to keep up with a full social calendar can be a sure-fire way to cause a flare up (or a series of flare ups).

To help make sure I don’t accept too many invitations, I prioritize my calendar based on events from my closest family and friends. For example, the annual holiday get together at my parent’s is a top priority for me and I always try my best to make it. If another invite comes up that is near my family dinner, I decline it. Trying to attend too many events just ends in my becoming exhausted, grumpy and cancelling most of what’s in my calendar.

While I do try to make it to the events I’ve prioritized, there are times that I simply can’t make it. No matter how many spoons I’ve tried to save or energy I’ve tried to conserve, I end up in a flare or in a state of exhaustion. I am lucky; my close family and friends are aware of my health conditions and are understanding when I must cancel plans.

9. Give yourself time to rest

Even after prioritizing my calendar, it can be very easy to fall into the busyness of work-mom life and the go-go-go without giving myself proper rest. To help avoid the disappointment of having to cancel because I’m exhausted, I make sure to give myself time to rest whenever I know I am going to be busy.

This applies to going out for a get together or spending an afternoon getting some shopping done. Both of those things can be quite taxing on my energy levels so to help offset that, I carve out some time to rest. If I am going to attend a dinner, I try to nap the afternoon in the hours before I have to leave. I also try to take the day after an event to rest.

I use this tip throughout the year as it helps me make sure I give myself the time I need to pause and rest and not continue to push myself. It is exceptionally helpful during the hecticness of the holiday season.

8. Take two cars (or rideshare)

This is a tip I wish I had implemented much sooner as it would have saved me a lot of energy and guilt.

Whenever I attend a get together or event, I coordinate my own way home. That used to mean taking my own car or getting a ride with someone else but these days that usually means getting myself a rideshare home.

I used to feel so guilty about leaving a party early and dragging my husband and kids home with me. I knew they understood that I had to leave but the guilt was immense. Now, I don’t worry about cutting out early – I know my friends and family can continue to enjoy their night while I can get home to rest.

Bonus tip: Let your host know that you may need to head out early. They may send you a barrage of concerned text messages otherwise!

7. Give yourself a curfew

I am not someone who will stay up late to extend my stay at a party or get-together however, if I am being honest, I do have to manage FOMO when I am having fun and it is time to go. I am someone who does best with regular amounts of sleep on a nightly basis. Throwing my sleep schedule out of whack to stay at party will only lead me to feel awful for the next few days.

To help avoid this, I give myself a curfew. I attend events, I enjoy my time there, but I don’t push myself to stay up later than I am used to. Leaving early and allowing myself the rest I need doesn’t mean that I won’t wake up feeling like I’ve just run a marathon, but it does help mitigate the odds that I’ll end up in a flare the next day.

6. Don’t take on too much cooking

This was a hard one for me to learn as I love to cook, especially a big holiday meal. There is something about putting together a large, hearty meal for the ones you love the most. But everything that came with that meal – the planning, shopping for ingredients, coordinating food sensitivities – just became too much. Not to mention the amount of energy needed over the course of a day to put the meal together.

These days, I take a team approach to the big meals. I no longer take on the responsibility of cooking the meal’s main entrees. Instead, I coordinate with my family and friends, and we all cook a few dishes or accompaniments.

Sometimes I miss cooking the big meal on my own but having help with it just makes it so much easier – and enjoyable.

Bonus Tip: Take advantage of online grocery ordering if you can. Save the spoons you would spend grocery shopping for party!

5. Try to keep your regular schedule

It can be very easy at this time of year to fall into the trap of saying “yes” to more than you should. Whether that’s to tasks at work that you’re trying to wrap up before the holidays or agreeing to driving your kids to their events, if you’re not careful you end up running from task-to-task and not giving yourself enough time to rest.

Like prioritizing my calendar for events, I also stick to a stringent to-do list. This helps me stay on track with what I need to do versus what I want to chip in and help with. I am the type of person who will always offer help (if I can) so keeping myself accountable with a running list has helped me save time and energy.

4. It’s okay to say no

This is a hard lesson to learn but one I’ve come to realize is very important if I am going to take care of myself over the holidays. I used to try to push through – attend too many parties so as not to offend anyone. Stay up later than I should because I didn’t want to break away from what I was doing. Agreed to every kid’s bake sale and fundraiser that came my way.

Nothing good ever came from saying yes to everything and pushing myself too hard. There were many Christmas Days spent in bed because I was just too tired and sore to get up.

It’s hard to say no, especially when you’re inclined to say yes but prioritizing what’s important to you and saying no is absolutely crucial at this time of year.

3. Shop online and save yourself the energy

I am the type of person who likes to support local as much as possible. My friends have made fun of me for the number of purchases I have made on Instagram. I am good with the teasing because supporting small (especially female-founded!) businesses is a passion of mine.

If there have been any positives to have come out of this pandemic, it’s the increase in small businesses shifting to e-commerce. I am so glad when I can buy from a local vendor – and even happier when I can do so from the comfort of my couch.

Shopping in person can sometimes be necessary but just the thought of dealing with parking lots and hot, crowded malls uses up a spoon or two.

2. Communication is key

I am very lucky in that my husband, kids and immediate family are all aware of my health conditions. They understand and are supportive when I tell them that I am getting tired and need a break or need to lay down for a while.

Still, there are times when I have to remind those in my life of what I need. As a parent, my immediate response is to be there for my kids. If they need my help, I will do whatever I can to help them.

Like saying ‘no’, I’ve had to learn to talk honestly about what I need. This can be hard, but I’ve found that being honest about what I need helps me set boundaries for myself and it helps those around me get a better sense of how my chronic illness impacts how much of myself I can give.

1. Be kind to yourself

There can be a lot of guilt when you have a chronic illness – especially when you need to cancel plans or break a promise to your kids or spouse.

No matter how many things you try to prioritize or lists you try to stick to, flare-ups happen. Life with a chronic illness is unpredictable and unfortunately for me, my illness doesn’t care that it’s Christmas and that I want to spend time with family I haven’t seen in months.

As someone with chronic illness, I do my best to manage my energy and get the rest I need. What my body decides to do can sometimes be out of my control. When that happens, I am disappointed and frustrated but I also remind myself that the magic of the holidays isn’t tied to one day. If I have to be in bed on December 25th, then we will make the most of the following days when I am able to get out of bed.

Being kind to others is part of what makes this season so special. Showing yourself kindness isn’t something that comes naturally for a lot of people, especially those of us who live with chronic illness. This year, let’s change that. Let’s be as kind to ourselves as we are to those around us.

How do you make it through the holiday season? Share your tips with us either through email or on our social channels.