Pain Companion: How to Survive the Holidays

By Sarah Anne Shockley, Columnist

The holiday season is upon us. For many it’s a time meant for joyful festivities, but for those of us in chronic pain, planning and participating in gatherings with coworkers, friends and family can pose significant challenges and stresses.
The demands on our energy, time and patience are likely going to become much higher than normal, and we’ll need to make wise choices about what we can and can’t do.

How do we find ways to participate enjoyably and not send our pain levels skyrocketing?

You Don't Have To Do It All

Learn to say no. Nicely, kindly, but firmly.

You don't have to be the person you were before you were struggling with pain, and you shouldn't try to be.

Yes, people have expectations of you and they forget that you're in pain. It's no fun, but you're going to have to gently remind others that you can't be everywhere and do everything they expect of you this holiday season.

Tell them that it's also hard on you, not be able to be as involved as you have been in the past, but that it is very necessary for your healing.

Let them know that the best way they can support your healing is to allow you to make the choices you need to make -- the choices that may keep you home a little more and out a little (or a lot) less often.

Give yourself permission to ask others to do more than usual so you can attend gatherings without wearing yourself out, and give yourself permission to stay home if you need to.

Let coworkers, friends, and family know that it's nothing personal about them. It's personal about you. You're taking care of yourself.

Give Yourself a Free Pass

Give yourself a free pass to say yes or no at the last minute, and decide you’re going to be okay with that. That means that you're going to reply with a firm "maybe" when you're invited anywhere. It means that you can leave the decision about whether you're up for something or not right up to the moment you're heading out the door. And it means preparing others to accept that.

Tell friends and family that you may need to cancel your attendance at the last minute, or that you may need to leave early, and ask for their understanding ahead of time. Let them know that you really want to be able to be with them, and your absence has nothing to do with how much you care about them. It has everything to do with taking care of yourself.

Then do what you need to do in that regard, and do it without guilt. Your priority is to find a way to take care of your need for rest and low stress, even in the midst of this demanding season.

Don't Cut Yourself Off

With that said, don't completely cut yourself off from friends and family either. Being with loved ones for special occasions can be one of the most joyful aspects of being alive, so you don't want to miss out entirely if you can help it.

So, here's my formula: Choose a small number, say 3 to 5 celebrations for the wholeholiday season that you feel are the most important to you personally. I don't mean the ones you used to think were important based on obligations to work, family and friends. I mean the ones you truly enjoy, the ones that feed your spirit, the ones you would really miss if you couldn't go.

If at all possible, find a way to get to those and only those. Go for only a brief period, if need be. Attend without contributing to food or preparations. Again, give yourself a guilt-free pass.

Let yourself have the times that are important to YOU, and say no to the rest.

This may sound selfish, but if you're in pain, you need to be a little more selfish. It isn't doing anyone any good for you to wear yourself out trying to do everything you used to do and go everywhere you used to go, if you will be raising your pain levels and not enjoying yourself.

So, instead of being exhausted and grumpy at too many functions, pick a few choice ones you can attend with enjoyment. Above all, be kind to yourself and take care of yourself first.

Find an Ally

Recruit a holiday ally -- a friend or family member who understands your situation -- who will do the explaining for you, drive you over to functions, pick up the slack in terms of bringing food or making arrangements, and agree to leave early with you if it's necessary.

You might find someone for the whole season or you might want to ask a different person for each function. Remind yourself: You need more help. You need to do less.

Don’t hide away this holiday season if you can help it, but also give yourself the gift of attending fewer functions, say yes only to the ones you really enjoy, find an ally or two who will support you, and giving yourself a free pass to say no so that you can fully enjoy the celebrations you do attend.

Sarah Anne Shockley suffers from Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, a painful condition that affects the nerves and arteries in the upper chest. Sarah is the author of The Pain Companion: Everyday Wisdom for Living With and Moving Beyond Chronic Pain.

Sarah also writes for her blog, The Pain Companion.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.