How to Manage Your Chronic Illness Through the Holidays

Let’s face it, we all stress through the holidays. It’s rarely an “easy” time of year for anyone. Over the years I have spent many holidays working in retail; I have had to share time between families (back when I was married); I’ve had to spend some Christmases all alone. And then there’s all the things we normally have to do like cook, and clean, and buy gifts (sometimes with limited money) and almost always with limited spoons (for those of you who use Spoon Theory). How can we be expected to manage all of this? And many of you may not handle it well. So, here’s what I’ve learned.

Do you like my Star Wars Ugly Christmas Sweater?

The most important thing to do is PACING. For those of you unfamiliar with my blog post on Pacing earlier this month, it basically comes down to doing the same amount of activity every day (so no over-exerting) regardless of how you feel. What usually happens, especially at this time of year, is we have a good day so we go ham and do as much as possible on that day (cooking, cleaning, etc) and then we end up not being able to do anything for day(s) after. If we do just 1 activity on that “good” day and then also do just 1 activity the next day, regardless if we feel better, the same, or a little worse, we will more easily avoid a string of “bad” days.

My only physical activity on this particular day in 2018 was ice skating.

The other most important thing is setting boundaries. Who says YOU have to host dinner? If you do host dinner, then maybe you don’t need to be the one to cook (can everyone bring a dish?) or clean by yourself (if you have a partner, can they help with the cleaning and prep). When shopping for presents, have you done it online? If you do have to go to the store, just use that as your 1 activity for the day (and wrapping the presents being an activity for another day). Tell your support system what you can do, and what you need help with. Stand up for yourself and don’t let them bully you.

It’s okay to say no, even if you have to say it to Santa himself.

If you don’t have a strong support system, which I know sometimes happens, then again, revert back to pacing, and say NO if you can’t do something (again, this could be hosting dinner, cleaning, etc), and see what other help you can get. Maybe there’s a neighbour or friend you can pay to help you cook or clean (that way it’s less expensive then hiring a professional). We need to use some flexible thinking and get outside the box.

I also recommend cuddling with your pet (if you have one) as they can help to reduce stress (RIP my little Spike).

The holidays are stressful, so we need to do what we can to manage our stress levels and take care of ourselves, while still living by our values (and hey, self-care may be one of your values). Have a Happy Holidays and keep making the most of it!

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How Do I Become a Castle with My Boundary Setting?

A lot of people struggle with boundary setting in their relationships. I often see people complain that their family members don’t treat them well, that their spouses don’t, and it seems all the worse for people with chronic illnesses. And actually, that is part of what Gabor Mate says in When the Body Says No. Boundary issues are common within families, and perhaps are part of the “social” part of the biopsychosocial aspect of disease.

And look, I’ve been there. Though I have good boundaries with my family members, it’s often because I set them. For example, I tend to not talk politics with some of my family because our differences in views were causing me stress (and stress is bad for chronic illness!). I do sometimes still struggle in romantic relationships and friendships. Setting a boundary means being assertive, and sometimes that pisses other people off, especially if they’ve gotten a way with violating that boundary for a long time. As chronic illness warriors we need to get good at setting boundaries as part of our self-care. Here is one way of thinking of boundary setting.

De-stressing does not just mean bubble baths…

Imagine that you are a castle, and the boundary is the personal space that you are placing between yourself and other people. The walls of the castle show that personal space. The moat lets other people know how close they can get to you, and in this case it can change size depending on the person and/or situation. The draw bridge itself is what allows people to get in, and keeps people out. This draw bridge helps us to feel secure. The castle guards are the actual skills we have to protect our boundaries. They can also help us when someone crosses our boundaries. And it’s important to remember that boundaries can be verbal, physical, emotional or spiritual.

This is the image my practicum site gave clients when we gave psychoeducation on boundary setting.

So how do we exactly do this? Well, short answer is to say no, resolve conflicts, follow our values, be assertive, and express our needs. But that is easier said than done. Saying no and being assertive both require practice, and if we’re nice (which most of us with chronic illness apparently are), it’s super difficult to do these two things. If you have a therapist, then that might be where you practice these skills. Otherwise, it’s easiest to start with boundaries that aren’t going to upset the other party as much. The other pieces of this: resolving conflicts, following our values and expressing our needs can be handled with some self-exploration, by answering the following questions for ourselves:

  • Who are the most important people in my life?
  • Who is there for me when I’m struggling?
  • What are these above relationships like for me?
  • What are the positive things I get from this other person?
  • What are the negative things this other person says or does? And how does that affect me?
  • What do I want to get? And what am I willing to give?
  • What have I tried already in regards to boundary setting and how has this worked for me?

Once we’ve done this, we have three options:

  • Leave or end the relationship.
  • Stay and live by our values: change what we can (remembering that we can’t change other people’s behaviour) and make some room for things that we may not like (that aren’t in dire need to change)
  • Stay and give up acting effectively – which is all to common an occurrence
How I look when I set some boundaries…

The more you practice setting boundaries, the easier it will be. It will also start to reduce your stress, which means you may start to see an improvement in your symptoms (be it physical or mental health), and are more likely to improve your well-being. Let’s keep making the most of it everyone!

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