Dr. Maines’ Holiday Survival Guide

By Liz Maines

Thursday, December 13, 2018

*Dr. Maines is a licensed clinical psychologist, practicing in Sana Fe, New Mexico. She also lives with ankylosing spondylitis. 

Uggh… the holidays and spondyloarthritis …what a mixed bag.  Living with a chronic illness such as this, puts us in the unique position of frequently assessing our energy level. The holiday hustle and bustle can challenge us both emotionally and physically. I wanted to share a few tips I have learned that may help you survive and maybe even enjoy the holiday season. 

Before you make any plans, consider your current physical and emotional health. Often our brains write checks that our bodies can’t cash. Think about what you want to do and consider if it is reasonable. For example, you may decide NOT to travel to see family because it is too hard on you. Often our family and friends forget that we are living with a mostly invisible, chronic illness; it is up to you to remind them and pace yourself so that you don’t get sick. It can be hard to set limits, but practice saying “no.” Also, let go of the guilt and delegate. You are operating at a new (or old) normal. Maybe your next holiday gathering is a potluck and you allow people to bring specific dishes rather than you doing all the cooking yourself. If shopping for gifts is stressful, perhaps you send cards to your loved ones saying that you donated to a charity in their name. The idea is to simplify things, and make them easier for yourself.

Remember to stay on your regular routine as much as you can. If you do go to a party, try to get home and get to bed close to your regular bedtime. Perhaps eat a healthy meal before you go out so as not to eat too much unhealthy food. Now I am not suggesting that you can’t have fun, but rather that it’s a good idea to remain mindful of the potential consequences, and choose activities and things you commit to wisely. Do not consume more alcohol during the holidays. It just contributes to feeling poorly both physically and emotionally. If you are already prone to feeling sad or lonely during the holidays, alcohol will make it worse.   

Lastly, not everyone celebrates or enjoys the holidays. Unfortunately, the media would like us to believe that we should all be celebrating and be happy, when in fact many people struggle emotionally during the holidays. So if you are that person, reach out to friends, family, coworkers, and/or a support group.  Do not isolate. Get out of the house. Yes, we struggle with movement, pain, and fatigue, however research has shown that just getting out of our usual environment is helpful in reducing sadness. It can be hard to get going but it is important. Here are some ideas; call a friend to see a movie, volunteer to pet animals at the animal shelter, take a community class, sing in a choir!

Okay, I am going to use the “E” word, “exercise.” I hear the grumbling…I know… I dislike it too… but it is so helpful for us! Exercise reduces negative mental health symptoms and life stress. It also reduces the stress hormones that contribute to inflammation. So think about doing something, and start small if you’d like. Park a little further from the door at the grocery store, walk around the mall, take a lap in a pool if you have the luxury of access to one. Most importantly, move your body! 

Don’t forget to practice gratitude daily, as doing so can help reduce emotional stress. Think about one thing that you are grateful for each morning before you get out of bed and one thing before you go to sleep at night. It may be challenging some days but over time, you will find that it helps to keep your mind focused.

Finally, enjoy the holidays or just having the extra time off. Is there a special activity you can take and turn into a ritual? My family has a holiday ritual that I love. We get together and watch our favorite funny or classic Christmas movies together throughout the entire month of December. Hearing the laughter keeps me in the moment and sometimes I even forget that I have a chronic illness.

Wishing you health and peace during this season, and through the year.  

Editor’s Note: In November, and in the spirit of Thanksgiving, the online Spondylitis Community recognized and thanked individuals who make a positive difference in their lives. Did you take part? You can see a selection of responses we received here, and send yours in to Programs@Spondylitis.org to be added to the post.

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