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5 Ways Chronic Illness Warriors Can Cope With the Post-Christmas Blues

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The Christmas holidays are this weird mix of joy, wonder, colorful lights in the dark, expectations, disappointments, old wounds, family dynamics, triggers and happiness. We build up these ideas of what Christmas Day will be and then when it doesn’t turn out the way we expected it to, we may feel sad and those whispers of self-doubt and judgment can start to get louder in our heads.

When you take that mix of emotional highs and lows and apply it to people with chronic illnesses and chronic pain, it becomes the “perfect storm” for a flare-up or an increase in symptoms. What is referred to as “the stress response” is when your brain sends signals from the your brain’s danger detector, the amygdala, to your brain’s stress response reactor, the hypothalamus, which causes the release of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline (a.k.a. oh my god what is going on? We are in danger!!! What should we do?!). If you step out into the road and a car is coming and you jump out of the way, the instant reaction from your brain is crucial to your survival. But what about when you are not in actual danger and your brain misfires anyway?

The hormones cortisol and adrenaline travel through your body, activating your sympathetic nervous system. This system is what makes blood rush to your muscles through an increased heart rate. Cortisol suppresses your parasympathetic nervous system, which then slows down systems such as digestion and your immune system.

This incredible ability of your brain to react to danger keeps us alive, and yet people with chronic pain and chronic illnesses tend to experience a chronic state of stress response.

Being in state of hypervigilance for long periods of time causes your body to carry too much cortisol, suppressing your parasympathetic nervous system, opening the door to symptoms such as inflammation, higher blood sugar levels, fatigue, headaches, digestive problems, sleep disturbances and memory/concentration impairment. Giving yourself Rest and Recovery Time (RRT) is crucial for your body.

So what can you do in the days and weeks after Christmas to take care of yourself and your body?

1. Find a way to sleep in or to take a nap. Several naps if possible. If you can’t make this happen right away, build it into your days as soon as possible. The more you put off RRT, the more opportunities for your brain to send out warning signals to activate the stress response. It isn’t a luxury or laziness to nap or to lie on the couch watching movies all day. It is allowing your body to rebalance its incredible systems.

2. If there are people who can help you to clean up, ask. Don’t try to do it all yourself. If you have children and they have presents spread out, ask them to take them to their rooms. Older children can help clean up the kitchen. And ask yourself, does it really matter if there are dishes soaking in the sink until this evening? And does it really matter if the wrapping paper is still in a bag in the middle of the floor until tomorrow? You’ll find it isn’t as important as you first thought it was.

3. Many of us have multiple families to visit and celebrate with. If Aunt Mildred is expecting you at 3 p.m., and you know that dinner isn’t until 6:30 p.m., phone and tell her you aren’t feeling great and can’t arrive until 6:00. If Uncle Fred always serves dinner at 4:00, and people stay late into the night playing games and eating leftovers, excuse yourself early. No one is forcing you to stay. Try to give yourself some early nights to either go to bed or do your go-to RRT routines.

4. Children can also have the post-Christmas blues – not because they are selfish and didn’t get what they wanted, but because they are human like us and have the same hopes and expectations that may not always come true. There is a build up to Christmas Day. To give yourself RRT, suggest the kids play with their new toys, watch a family movie together in PJs with popcorn and blankets, have a playdate, or go visit their grandparents! (Or Aunt Mildred. She loves your children.)

5. This is the most important part of RRT for us Warriors: give yourself some compassion. Your body and its illness are not under your control. You didn’t ask for arthritis that makes washing dishes horrendous. No one chooses chronic fatigue that had you sleeping through dessert. You are not your illness. Dr. Kristen Neff, PhD, one of the leading experts on self-compassion, suggests saying to yourself something like… This is a moment of suffering. Lots of people with chronic illnesses are feeling this way today. It is normal to feel disappointed or frustrated that you need RRT. Everyone feels that way at some point. I am human and these feelings are OK. May I be safe, may I be kind, may I accept myself just as I am in this moment. You may be surprised what a relief it is to actually say to yourself that your emotions are valid and rational.

Post-Christmas blues are real. Your feelings are valid and common. The way you treat yourself over the next week is important. Be gentle with your body, but also be gentle with how you think about yourself and how you talk to yourself.

Take care of yourself and remember to nourish your mind, body and spirit.

Getty Image by MilaArt

Originally published: December 31, 2018
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