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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Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: A Book Review

Did you know most animals do not get ulcers? Or suffer these kinds of physical ailments from stress? To be honest I never really thought about this before reading this book. If you’re not familiar with Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky, I can’t say I’m surprised. I only heard about the book when I was taking an 8-hour online course during my practicum. But it sounded interested. The subtitle is The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping. If you have a chronic illness then this may be a good read to get some more understanding.

I bought it off of Amazon, but it should be available at your local bookstore or library as well.

What I liked about the book:
To start off, the subject matter is interesting. We hear a lot about how stress is involved with chronic illness, but how exactly does that work? That’s what this book aims to explain. It also gives anecdotes from the animal kingdom in every chapter, explaining how different animals react to stressors. The primary focus of the book is certainly on the physiological responses to stress, so there is a lot about the brain in their, with a touch of psychological responses (I would’ve preferred more). Overall it uses the biopsychosocial approach, which I definitely stand behind. There is also a chapter on stress-management, which is helpful.
The chapters are as follows: (1) Why Don’t Zebras Get Ulcers? (2) Glands, Gooseflesh and Hormones, (3) Stroke, Heart Attacks and Voodoo Death, (4) Stress, Metabolism, and Liquidating Your Assets, (5) Ulcers, the Runs, and Hot Fudge Sundaes, (6) Dwarfism and the Importance of Mothers, (7) Sex and Reproduction, (8) Immunity, Stress and Disease, (9) Stress and Pain, (10) Stress and Memory, (11) Stress and a Good Night’s Sleep, (12) Aging and Death, (13) Why is Psychological Stress Stressful? (14) Stress and Depression, (15) Personality, Temperament, and Their Stress-Related Consequences, (16) Junkies, Adrenaline Junkies, and Pleasure, (17) The View from the Bottom, and (18) Managing Stress.
If any of this sounds relevant to you, it may be worth checking out this book.

One of my stress management techniques (since childhood).

What I Didn’t Like About the Book: There are a few drawbacks to the book in my opinion. First, it’s pretty sciency. He does try to make it readable for lay people, but even with my masters in counselling psychology, I got a little overwhelmed by the neuroscience aspect of the book, which was a lot of it. So be prepared to wade through if you want to read it. The other thing I didn’t like was his use of language, which was very outdated. For example, he constantly referred to people with depression as “depressives,” which is stigmatizing and just not right in my opinion. He did this with other conditions as well. It brings up with the people first vs. illness first argument, which I’m not going to get into here, but it bothered me, as a person (and as a mental health professional).

Would I recommend it? Yes. Look, overall I think there is a ton of great and interesting info in there. Will it make you feel better? Not necessarily, but I’m all for having a better understanding of what’s going on in my body, that way I can take appropriate steps to help myself. For example, mindfulness has a large evidence base of helping with stress, and I therefore, practice meditation and other mindfulness techniques on a regular basis.

A mindful moment.

As I keep reading, I’ll keep sharing. And I hope you all keep making the most of it!

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Video: Cooking with Kels – Farmer’s Markets & Choice Overload Stress Management

This video has 2 main themes: first, why shopping at farmer’s markets and eating organic food is beneficial to our health, especially as Chronic Illness Warriors; and second, how to deal with choice overload so that it isn’t stress (because that causes flares) whether it be shopping, or really anything else.

Are you feeling hopeless when it comes to making lifestyle changes to improve your chronic illness? Check out this week’s podcast episode on Creative Hopelessness, to help find ways to overcome that feeling.

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