Surviving the Holidays
By Karen Lee Richards
Editor's Note: When she wrote this article, Karen Lee Richards was Vice President of the National Fibromyalgia Association and Executive Editor of its magazine, Fibromyalgia AWARE. The article is reprinted from the Sept.-Dec. 2002 issue of the magazine, with permission of NFA.
Does the thought of another holiday season fill you with joyful anticipation or overwhelm you with fear and dread? The average person considers the holidays at least somewhat stressful. For people with fibromyalgia, who are already struggling to cope with daily life in general, the added demands and stresses of the holidays can trigger a flare of fibromyalgia symptoms. While you may not be able to totally avoid all stress, you can reduce your stress level significantly by giving yourself a G.I.F.T.
G - Guilt Must Go
Guilt is born when you fail to live up to your own expectations for yourself. Year after year you are bombarded with a "magical mythical model" of the idyllic holiday scene - complete with family, friends, food and festivities, encompassed in a spirit of peace and goodwill for all. If this is the holiday image you are trying to achieve, it is time for a reality check. The fact is, you have a chronic pain illness which limits what and how much you can do. It's time to stop blaming yourself because you can't provide the elaborate holiday festivities you once did or because you can't do everything you think your family expects you to do. It's time to remember what the holidays are really about - expressing your love and thankfulness for family and friends. There are many ways to express those feelings without damaging your body in the process.
Decide right now that you will refuse to accept any feelings of guilt because of what you cannot do. Instead, focus your attention on what you can do. Then gather that old guilt up into a big ball, kick it out, and lock the door behind it!
I - Importance Rules
Do not let the holiday season descend upon you like a heavy weight. Decide which aspects of the holidays are most important to you and your immediate family. Focus on accomplishing the most important things and let everything else go. (If spending quality time together visiting is more important than a huge home-cooked meal, have your holiday dinner at a restaurant so you can relax and enjoy each other's company.)
Once you have decided what is most important to you for the holidays, share this with your immediate family. Then ask each family member what is most important to them (an elaborately decorated house, lots of baked goodies on hand, a big home-cooked dinner, visiting with other relatives, etc.). Family traditions are important but, just as families grow and change, some traditions may have to change as well. Hold on to the traditions and rituals that are most important to your family, but understand that it may be time for some traditions to change. Work together to come up with a compromise that everyone can live with. Ask each person in the family to take responsibility for some part of the holiday plans. Knowing ahead of time what the priorities and plans are will avoid disappointment and hurt feelings later.
F - Family Matters
During the holiday season, extended families come together, often traveling great distances. While it may be wonderful to visit with relatives not often seen, you need to plan ahead to avoid being physically drained by what should be an enjoyable experience. Whether they come to your home or you go to theirs, talk to them ahead of time and explain that you have a chronic illness which limits your activity and requires you to rest at regular intervals. Then, when you decline an invitation to go sightseeing or politely excuse yourself to go take a nap, you do not have to explain or feel guilty.
Keep in mind that your first responsibility is to yourself and your immediate family. If you are not feeling up to a large family gathering this year, simply explain that, as much as you would love to see everyone, your health will not allow you to participate this year.
Good communication with your family is a key to a happy holiday season. However, sometimes when we are not feeling well our attempts at communication may sound more like whining or complaining. Try to speak in a calm, logical, factual manner as you make plans or explain your limitations to family and friends. Be aware that some people may not understand at first but, if you calmly stand your ground, most will eventually come around.
T - Think ahead
A large portion of holiday stress comes from the last-minute rush to get everything done. Begin to plan your holiday season at least two months in advance. Put your plans on paper so that they are not lost in an unexpected attack of "fibro-fog." Make a gift list, write out menus and formulate a "to do" agenda. The next step is to simplify and delegate. Look at each item on your list and ask yourself, "Is this really important to me and/or my family?" If not, take it off the list. If it meets the importance criteria, ask, "Can someone else do this for me?" If so, delegate it. If not, your final question should be, "What is the easiest way to accomplish this?" Sometimes we make things harder on ourselves than they have to be simply because we don't take time to figure out whether there is an easier way.
Once you have fine-tuned your list, look at the remaining items and try to accomplish at least a portion of your plan each week. Accept the fact that you will have some bad days. Allow yourself extra time in your schedule so that one or two bad days will not ruin your entire holiday season. By not waiting until the last minute to do everything, you might just have enough energy left over to actually enjoy the holidays.
Give yourself a G.I.F.T. this year and have a happier, healthier holiday season!
Six Tips to reduce holiday stress
1) Avoid the stress and exhaustion of holiday shopping by ordering your gifts from catalogs and TV shopping channels. An added benefit is that out-of-town gifts can be sent directly to the recipients, saving you the hassle of finding a box, packaging the gifts and waiting in line at the post office.
2) Use gift bags instead of traditional wrapping. (Dollar-type stores, catalogs and TV shopping channels often offer low-cost assortments of gift bags.)
3) Each year, between busy schedules and increased postage costs, fewer and fewer people send holiday cards. If you still feel you must send some cards, be selective. Only send them to close friends and family whom you seldom see.
4) When everyone is coming to your house for dinner, ask each one to bring one or two dishes, leaving yourself only one or two simple items to prepare.
5) If you are going out of town to visit relatives for the holidays, consider staying at a hotel for at least part of the time. Having a separate haven will reduce your stress by giving you a sense of control over your own space and activities for at least a portion of each day.
6) If the demands of your extended family are more than you can handle each year, consider making an annual holiday vacation a new family tradition. (Try a western dude ranch, a chalet in the mountains, or a warm tropical beach.) This can be a special bonding time for you and your immediate family. You will not feel compelled to cook, and you will probably reduce the size of your gift list because everything will have to fit in a car or on a plane.