a happy family gathering for the holidays and making a toast

11 Ways to Curb Holiday Stress When You Have a Chronic Condition

By Corinne O’Keefe Osborn
November 29, 2022

While the holidays can bring many joyous moments, this season is also often full of stress, anxiety, and strong emotions. You may be preparing an elaborate meal, struggling to afford the latest toy, feeling lonely, or missing someone, and that stress is bound to do a number on your body. Many people with chronic conditions find that emotional stress can agitate and amplify their symptoms.

In fact, chronic stress negatively impacts everyone’s health, increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and obesity. But, people with chronic illness are even more susceptible, as stress raises blood sugar, increases inflammation, and weakens the immune system, potentially wreaking havoc throughout the body.

Fortunately, stress-management techniques are highly effective. So, if you’re sick of feeling crummy and rundown during the holidays, try some of these methods to ease holiday stress.

Embrace the Ones You Love

Nothing says the holidays like being with people you care about.

“Connections with those we love create an oxytocin response in our body. Oxytocin—sometimes called the ‘love hormone’—works to reduce cortisol in our bodies, lowering stress,” says Rochelle Walsh, a licensed therapist in Topeka, Kansas. “Lowering stress means better mental and physical health.”

This year, reach out in whatever way you can to maintain those relationships that help you relieve stress.

Practice Self-Care

The importance of self-care cannot be overstated. While it may seem like a bit of a luxury to carve out some space for yourself during these crazy times, it shouldn’t be. In fact, for people living with chronic health conditions, self-care is more a necessity than a luxury.

“Practice self-care by making sure you’re doing things for you,” says Allyssa Dziurlaj, a licensed professional counselor in Akron, Ohio. “Examples of this could be reading, journaling, meditating, or listening to music.”

Everyone’s definition of self-care is slightly different, so ask yourself what it means to you, and carve out some “me time” amid the holiday hustle and bustle.

Recognize Your Triggers

We all have different stress triggers when it comes to the holidays. Take a few minutes to think about what it is about the holidays that causes you stress—you can even make a list. Then come up with a plan for how to manage those stressors this year.

“Once you are aware of the triggers—whether it’s food, certain people, or doing too much—you can take specific steps to reduce the stress-inducing issues,” says Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., a psychologist in Sonoma County, California.

Perhaps you can assign the task to another family member this year, or give yourself extra time to carry it out, for example.

Prioritize Your Health and Safety

Your health, and the health of those you love, is important—and just because the holiday to-do list is long doesn’t mean your health should take a back seat. Be kind to your body by sticking with a healthy lifestyle and any medication regimen you and your doctor have agreed upon, and don’t take unnecessary risks. Now might not be the time to over-imbibe alcohol or to push yourself to go on an all-day shopping spree, for example.

“Know your body's limits and give yourself permission to honor them. Only you can determine which activities will be safe for you,” says Walsh. “Give yourself permission to set limits without apology. Another person's disappointment or inability to understand is not your responsibility—caring for yourself is.”

Set Boundaries

Setting healthy boundaries with the people we love can be difficult, at times, but if those boundaries help you feel happier and healthier, it will be worth it for everyone involved.

“Difficult family members can take the joy out of holiday gatherings, so it’s important to have strong boundaries and keep such people at an emotional distance,” says Manly. “Rather than ignoring them or getting into spats, it’s often possible to keep them at arm’s length by kindly acknowledging their presence but refusing to engage in negative ways.”

In other words, you might want to change the subject any time a family member tries to criticize a loved one or starts a political debate. And you shouldn’t feel obligated to participate in every event and task.

“Learn to give a polite ‘no’ to invitations that tax you or your schedule,” says Manly. “If family or social gatherings tend to be stress-inducing, attend only those that are ‘musts’ for you. And for those that you do attend, feel free to limit your stay to a time frame that feels right and doable for you.”

Make Time for Exercise

Exercise is one of the healthiest forms of self-care. It helps reduce stress and improve mood.

“Get 20 to 30 minutes of exercise daily,” says Jerry Opthof, Psy.D., a psychologist in Westwood, New Jersey. “Break a sweat! It doesn't have to be at a gym. Take a walk, hike, ride a bike, skateboard, play basketball—anything that you enjoy that gets the heart rate up.”

Control the Conversation

When you live with a chronic disease, it may be one of the primary things people think of when they see you. At family gatherings, it can feel like the only thing people want to know is how you’re feeling—and that might not be your favorite topic of conversation. Try to remember that these people are usually coming from a place of genuine interest and concern, but if you don’t feel like talking about your health, don’t.

Often a simple, “Enough about me…” will help steer the conversation down a different path, but having backup doesn’t hurt.

“Talk to your partner, or a trusted family member or a friend, and let them know that you don't want to spend the holiday talking about your health,” says Samantha Osborne, a cognitive behavioral therapist in Asheville, North Carolina. “Often, someone else can help run interference by changing the subject or moving the conversation in a different direction.”

Take Advantage of Technology

Being isolated from family and friends can be extra stressful at the holidays.

“If you cannot be physically present with your loved ones, try a virtual holiday party,” suggests Rae Mazzei, Psy.D., a health psychologist in Chandler, Arizona. “Although this doesn’t replace actually being with family and friends in one place, you will be able to interact with them and see their faces.”

You might plan a virtual gift swap or watch kids open their gifts over video chat.

Acknowledge All Your Feelings

Keeping feelings bottled up can lead to prolonged stress. Be honest with yourself about where you are emotionally this year. It’s okay to mourn a loved one who’s no longer with you to celebrate, or to feel left out if you can’t participate in a beloved tradition this year.

“Allow yourself to feel all your emotions,” says Walsh. “Of course, we'd prefer to be happy during times of festivities, but often holidays also can trigger feelings of loss, loneliness and melancholy. Allowing access to vulnerable emotions opens a greater capacity for joy, as well.”

Practice Relaxation Techniques

If you anticipate high stress levels around the holidays, start practicing some relaxation techniques. That way you’ll have a go-to method of calming down during particularly bad times.

“Engaging in relaxation techniques can help reduce stress,” says Mazzei. “Deep breathing facilitates the calming of the nervous system, particularly the parasympathetic system. Try inhaling for 5 seconds, and then exhaling for 5 seconds. This 10-second breath cycle induces a relaxation response within your body.”

Remember, Nothing’s Perfect

Are you striving for a perfectly Instagram-able holiday? Or maybe trying to recreate cherished memories of holidays past? Try not to put so much pressure on yourself.

“Give up the need to make the holidays ‘perfect,’’’ says Manly. “Instead, put your energy into relishing the beautiful, if imperfect, moments with friends, family, and yourself.”

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