Chronic Illness and the Holidays: Give the Gift of Self-Care

Dec 3, 2012

Chronic pain and illness can make any day a challenge, but throw in holiday stress and expectations, and it can push over the edge. The idealistic holiday parties depicted on television and in books and magazines just add to the stress. Unrealistic gift-giving guides and tips on hosting the perfect holiday party or family gathering can leave you feeling depressed, lonely, and grieving your losses. The good news is proper self-care can help you manage your pain and fatigue and get the most out of this holiday season.

It might be tempting to view self-care as selfish. However, it is anything but.

In his book, Let Your Life Speak, author Parker J. Palmer offers these insightful words, “Self-care is never a selfish act — it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give it the care it requires, we do so not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch.”

So for you—and for the people you love—start this holiday season by giving yourself the gift of self-care. Here are a few tips to help you get started:

Prioritize. Ask yourself and family members, “What will make the holidays meaningful this year?”
You cannot do everything this holiday season, so why not focus on what is meaningful to you and your loved ones? One woman asked her husband this question and he replied, “Stop doing so much and just sit down and have fun with me.” The gift of time is sometimes the greatest gift we can give those we love. If it is a choice between a perfectly decorated house or meaningful time spent with family members, most people prefer giving and receiving the gift of presence.

Limit holiday gift giving.
Many people I talk to find holiday gift giving excessive and stressful. To minimize stress, one woman I know decided to eliminate gift giving to adult family members entirely, focusing instead on buying one or two small presents for children or grandchildren in the family. Another person is donating money to charity in a friend or family member’s name. If you do shop, do so online. Most stores will gift wrap your gift and include a personal note from you for an additional fee, saving physical and emotional wear and tear on your body.

Communicate your needs and feelings to others.
Because many chronic illnesses are invisible, it means that others may not be aware of your physical and emotional limits. It is your responsibility to communicate your needs to others. Sometimes comparing what you’re going through to something they are familiar with can help. For example, “Do you know what you feel like when you’re coming down with the flu? The pain and fatigue of rheumatoid arthritis feel that way to me today. Could we just stay home and talk instead of going out today?”

Grieve your losses.
The holidays often bring painful memories to the surface — the loss of a loved one or pet, strained or broken family relationships, and memories of past holidays can dampen holiday cheer. If you are sad this holiday season, take time to acknowledge your feelings by sharing them with a friend or family member or by writing in a paper or electronic journal. Consider honoring the memories of those you have loved and lost by donating to a charity in their name. Don’t be afraid to cry if it makes you feel better. Tears can be healing.

Just say no.
With limited physical and emotional reserves, it is sometimes necessary to choose between holiday events and activities. As much as we would like to, we just cannot do it all. For example, I recently declined an invitation to a church Christmas dinner, which was scheduled a few days before a cross-country flight I’ll be making to visit my son and his wife. Knowing the toll traveling takes on my body, I decided to conserve my energy for the flight.

Give yourself a gift that nourishes body and soul.
Chronic illness can be difficult not only physically but emotionally as well. Consider giving yourself a gift that nourishes body and soul. My favorites include a massage or facial, a good book, or a weekend away with friends. Treat yourself this year to a gift that nourishes body and soul.

While incorporating these self-care tips into your life this holiday season will help, they won’t completely eliminate holiday stress. But they will go a long way toward helping   you make this holiday season your best one yet.