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6 Tips for Surviving Holiday Gatherings With Chronic Illness and Anxiety

For some of us, there’s nothing worse than trying to muster up the strength and courage to push through a busy family gathering. Pair that with the holidays, and you have a perfect recipe for disaster.

Personally, anxiety tends to be one of my worst companions when I’m trying to make it through the several hours of meeting with family, eating unfamiliar foods, exchanging gifts, answering life’s greatest questions and more. But piggybacking on anxiety are usually migraine, fibromyalgia, extreme fatigue, joint pain, nausea and more. It’s almost as if they’re all good friends having their own holiday gathering, that I definitely didn’t want to be invited to.

Though I have trouble with the stress of large, crowded gatherings, I have figured out my own ways to power through them. I get a little better at it as each year passes. Here are some of my favorite tips for softening the holiday blows…

1. It’s OK to say “no.” When you arrive at family gatherings, your relatives tend to swarm over you, demanding hugs and asking whatever the most recent invasive question is in your life (this year for me: “how’s married life treatin’ ya?”). Remember that it is OK to ask for some space. It is OK to say you aren’t comfortable answering the thousand questions launched at you. It is OK to say no to eating Aunt Gertrude’s whatever-that-is because it could upset your delicate digestive system. And to everything else: no is an acceptable answer.

2. Bring comfort items with you. One of my favorite things to do when I go to a large family event is wear a secret comfy item of clothing that I can mask as “dressing up.” You know where this is going… leggings!! Leggings are my secret clothing weapon because I can dress them up or I can be totally slouchy in them at home, but either way: they’re mega cozy and make me feel safe. Whatever your personal comfort item is, bring it with you to help ease anxiety and help you feel comfy all day long.

3. Make little escapes when you can. When you start feeling the pressure, feeling so overwhelmed that the world feels like it’s closing in around you and you can’t breathe, quietly get up and leave. Go to the bathroom. Go outside for some fresh air. Go sit in the car. Go take a walk. Just make whatever tiny escape you can to gather yourself mentally for returning to the crowd. Maybe you’ll need to excuse yourself politely, and that’s OK, do it however you need to do it, but know that it is OK to leave for a bit.

4. Remember to pack your relief/rescue kit. You should already have one of these made up for occasions such as this, but if you don’t, include things like: extra doses of your medications, ear plugs, ice packs, a water bottle, essential oils/CBD oil, muscle rub, sunglasses and anything else that gives you relief on the go. Bring it with you and use whatever you need whenever you need it!

5. Practice mini mindfulness exercises. You can do these while sitting at the table to eat. You can do it while Aunt Gertrude is invading your personal space for the 13th time today. You can do it while all the noises and the heat of the crowd is starting to get to you. I particularly like the 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique and find myself using this one a lot. This one is easy to do discretely without anyone else even knowing you’re doing it.

  • Find five things you can see,
  • Four things you can feel,
  • Three things you can hear,
  • Two things you can smell, and
  • One thing you can taste.

I also like the 4-7-8 Relaxing Breath Exercise. It works like this:

  • Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
  • Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
  • Hold your breath for a count of seven.
  • Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
  • This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.

6. Do what you can – and no more. If anyone presses you about this issue, refer back to point #1: it is OK to say no. Please don’t push yourself overboard for the sake of a single day of a family gathering. The entire holiday season is the season of joy, togetherness, giving and so much more. It is not just about one day of forcing yourself into misery to make it to a gathering. If you are having trouble the day of an event, ask your family or friends to reschedule. If they can’t, ask if you can be with some of them for a smaller gathering on another day, or maybe plan to do something together that won’t be so triggering. It’s important that you enjoy the holiday season in your own way, too. In ways that won’t bring about pain and mental anguish.

Image Credits: Jorie Logan Morris

This story originally appeared on The Migraine Mantras.

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