You deserve to enjoy this season.
For many of us, the air is cooling, the leaves are falling, and thoughts of the upcoming holiday season are creeping into our heads.
While the holidays can be an exciting time that many people look forward to, when you live with a chronic condition like multiple sclerosis (MS), that joy can be tempered by some unique problems that come along this time of year.
With changes to our daily routine, increased obligations, travel, and even dietary changes, MS and the holiday season don’t always play well together. However, over the years I’ve come up with some tips that I use to make the holidays better.
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Keep to your routine as much as possible
While I once considered myself a very spontaneous person, after living with MS for awhile, I’ve learned how crucial it is for me to have a daily routine.
Getting up and going to bed at the same time helps me get the rest I need. Going about my mornings in a consistent way helps me set up the day and act on autopilot, saving both physical and mental energy. Having a consistent routine is also comforting and benefits my mental health.
The holiday season tends to disrupt routines, which can have a huge impact on someone like me. Trying to maintain a daily routine can be difficult during the holidays because of so many different events, as well as other people being off from work.
Try to keep some part of your everyday routine in place, no matter the disruptions.
Plan time to rest
The holidays are a hectic time, often packed with various activities. It’s important to have a plan where you set aside specific time to rest and recover.
I know that if I leave my house for any sort of activity, my body is going to want me to pay for it. The day after being active can be especially rough for me, so I do my best to plan around that.
When figuring out my holiday plans, I try to make sure that I plan some days where I know my body will get some downtime. By budgeting this ahead of time, I feel less disappointed when I’m resting, and I can ensure I get to participate in the moments that are most important to me.
Don’t be afraid to cancel plans
The holiday season is filled with obligations. Parties, gatherings, meetups, dinners — there are many events where your presence is expected.
MS can be extremely unpredictable, however. Sometimes the simple act of showering and getting ready for an activity can be enough to wear me out. Other times, I wake up and just feel lousy for seemingly no reason at all.
The bottom line is that our bodies don’t always cooperate with us, and we have to cancel plans. Skipping out on holiday activities isn’t pleasant, but it happens.
Missing out is hard enough, so don’t beat yourself up over it. You have a chronic condition, these things happen. It’s OK to cancel plans when you need to. Don’t feel bad about it.
Remember, it’s OK to say ‘no’
One good way to avoid having to cancel so much is to be able to say “no” in the first place.
While the holidays are filled with obligations, but it’s important to realize that these commitments aren’t life or death. Your loved ones may be a little bummed, but everyone will be absolutely fine if you can’t attend every gathering.
Your health is more important and sometimes the best way to maintain it is by declining an invitation.
Remind your family of your condition
None of us want to remind people that we are sick, however, the holidays can make some people have tunnel vision. I think we all know someone who is so driven to maintain traditions that they lose sight of what’s really important.
It can be beneficial to remind your family of your condition, particularly any special needs that you may have (for example, having a quiet room you can retreat to during a bustling party).
A gentle reminder ahead of time can make a huge difference when it comes to hurt feelings later on.
Be wary of sensory overload
Whether you are doing some extra shopping or attending a family gathering, places tend to be a bit more crowded and a bit louder than normal.
There are many with MS, myself included, that can suffer from sensory overload. I’ve had many holiday gatherings where the number of people, noise, and light all became too much, and I needed to leave the room as quickly as possible.
Sometimes, I pack some small earplugs when I know I may be at risk of sensory overload. That way, when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I can go to another room and put them in for a few moments of peace before I return to the festivities.
Removing yourself from the situation as soon as you begin to feel unwell can often allow you to return later.
Plan for temperature
For many people, the holiday season is in the colder months. On paper, that sounds like a great thing for people with MS who deal with heat intolerance.
The reality is far different because when the weather is cold, most places are actively trying to be warm. When heaters are cranking and fireplaces are lit, staying cool can be extremely difficult.
We often have a tendency to dress warmly during the colder months, which can be a recipe for disaster if a store or someone’s house has the heat going. It’s important to plan ahead and layer your clothing so that you can remove items if you begin to get too warm.
Be prepared for overindulgence
The holidays are synonymous with copious amounts of food and drink. For many, overindulgence often goes hand-in-hand with this time of year.
It may sound like pretty basic advice — that could go for anyone, chronic illness or not — but moderation is important.
Like many things with MS, too much food or drink can be especially rough. Gastrointestinal (GI) issues can be common, as can hangovers, so be cautious about what you choose to indulge in.
Since it’s not always easy to say “no,” I find it helps to be prepared. I make sure I pack some Pepto Bismol for GI issues and an electrolyte drink to stay hydrated and, hopefully, avoid hangovers.
Budget in extra time when traveling
The longer I’ve lived with MS, the harder it is for me to travel. Be it a plane or a car, sitting in the same position for long periods of time is extremely difficult.
Even at home, I need to lay down and also switch up positions often. My legs can become painfully tight due to spasticity. I also experience uncontrollable spasms and numbness in my limbs. This can make the very thought of traveling extremely unappealing for me.
If driving, I stop often to stretch my legs. On an airplane, I’ll try to walk to the bathroom as much as I can. Depending on how far the trip is, the last thing I want is a direct flight because I need a break from the confined space.
When I do have to travel, I also make sure to plan as leisurely a trip as possible. Trying to rush around and meet a particular timeline can add more stress than I can handle.
When possible, bookend travel with rest days
One of the most difficult things I’ve had to learn with MS is that my body needs more rest. It’s not easy for me to travel somewhere and be super active.
While not always feasible, If I’m traveling to see family or friends, I do my best to ensure I have rest days when I arrive and when I get home.
To make the best of any trip, I really need that time after traveling to rest and acclimate. Doing so helps ensure that I cancel less and can be fully present in the festivities.
Similarly, a post-holiday trip requires some serious recovery time, and it’s best to plan ahead.
Or, don’t travel
This tip isn’t the most practical for many people, but if you can avoid traveling for the holidays, do it.
Traveling long distances to then attend busy family gatherings can be incredibly difficult for someone with MS. It takes its toll, both mentally and physically. It can also be very hard to recover from.
You have to ask yourself if it’s worth it. For some, the weight of tradition will be too much to bear and they will expend themselves making it work.If you can, however, avoid the hustle, bustle, and stress that come with traveling for the holidays — your body will be much better for it.
Use technology to bridge distances
If traveling is too difficult for you, there are some great ways to still be there virtually. The pandemic has really shown how useful and effective video conferencing programs, like Zoom, can be in letting people connect with one another while still in their own homes.
Maybe it’s not quite like being there in person, but it is still a great alternative and a way to experience the holidays with loved ones.
Shop for gifts online
I’m not sure that any group of people has more to gain from shopping online than those with chronic conditions.
Shopping can be difficult for so many reasons. In fact, a single shopping trip can encompass many of the issues we’ve already discussed here like traveling, sensory overload, temperature intolerance, and stress.
You can avoid all of those pitfalls by shopping online. You can even have gifts pre-wrapped and sent right to your recipients.
Be warned that that product availability is more limited and shipping times are longer than normal because of the pandemic, so plan on shopping early.
Buy your groceries online
Gifts aren’t the only thing you can shop for online these days. Just as video conferencing saw increased use and more dedicated infrastructure during the pandemic, so too did online grocery ordering.
It’s now become commonplace for many people to order groceries online and then have them delivered right to their door or made available for car side pickup at the store.
For stores that don’t offer the service, you can utilize an app, like Instacart, to have someone go and do the shopping for you.
Prepare for mental health challenges
Living with a chronic condition, like MS, means you may already have some mental health struggles. Isolation and loneliness are also an issue for many folks with MS.
For me, the holiday season often increases feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and depression.
It can be a good practice to line up some distractions for yourself, particularly if you can’t be with loved ones. Scheduling a little extra time with your therapist can be a good proactive measure as well.
Whatever you do, preparing ahead of time can help ensure you have an easier time this season.
The bottom line
With so many concerns that come with the holidays and having a chronic condition, it can be easy to see them as only a source of stress. But remember to be kind to yourself and to not wear yourself out for the sake of others.
Be sure to have some fun and enjoy yourself during the holidays — you’ve certainly earned it. You’ve gotten through another year with MS and that’s worth celebrating and being proud of. It’s OK to treat yourself!