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Tips for Getting Through the Holidays With a Chronic Illness

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The holidays can be exciting, but unfortunately, they can also be stressful. A lot of extra work and energy is needed, which can be extra taxing if you have a chronic illness like pulmonary hypertension (PH).

The following are some hints and tips to get you through the holidays a little easier:

1. Shopping

Having pulmonary hypertension can make shopping for gifts more challenging. If you find shopping for the holidays difficult, maybe some of these tips will help.

• Avoid weekend shopping when malls are crowded. If you are able, go shopping during the day when most people are at work.

• Bring a sturdy friend with you who doesn’t mind carrying heavier bags. (Shout out to all the men in my life who carry my bags!)

• Use whatever is necessary to make your shopping experience easier, from wheelchairs and scooters to oxygen.

• Online shopping. Need I say more? You can shop from the comfort of your living room and avoid all the heavy lifting. Be sure to pick online stores that offer reasonably priced or free shipping and guarantee your package will arrive when need it.

2. Tree-trimming

I was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension around the holidays. (I actually had my right heart catheterized on Christmas Eve, so the holidays are a bittersweet time for me.) However, I’ve been able to watch my body go through changes, both good and bad. I went from not being able to decorate the Christmas tree, to being able to do it with oxygen, to finally being able to decorate the entire tree by myself last year without the help of medical equipment. Here are some hacks for trimming a tree that I’ve picked up along the way:

• Get help putting the tree together and putting it up.

• Use a small step stool. It can help you reach higher without straining too much. It also can be used as a stool for you to sit on while decorating the bottom of the tree.

• Work in one spot with the decorations in arm’s reach and move once that area is completed.

• Avoid bending over and standing up to get each decoration. Place your decorations on a table nearby or place a temporary table with your ornaments beside you while you decorate.

• Ask for help as needed.

• Don’t be afraid to get a smaller tree, like a tabletop one, if a larger one is too difficult to manage.

3. Rest and recharge.

Preparing for the holidays can be very exhausting. Many people with pulmonary hypertension and other chronic illnesses may tire more quickly than the average bear. Because of this, it’s important to rest and recharge as needed.

• Try to get a good night’s rest before an outing or event, such as New Year’s Eve.

• Turn off electronics, like your cellphone or tablet, at least 20 minutes to an hour before you want to sleep. The light omitted from these devices can make it more difficult for you to sleep because it tricks the brain into think it’s daytime.

• Reading before bed can help ease your mind into sleep and let go of the day’s stress. Read a few pages or a short chapter before bed.

• Don’t be afraid to take a 20- or 40-minute catnap the day of an important outing if you feel like you need some extra gas in the old energy tank.

• Yoga designed for encouraging sleep may help you calm down before bed. (Many yoga routines designed for sleep are very gentle. Don’t be afraid to modify anything to make it easier.) Of course, ask your doctor before starting a new exercise routine

• Soothing scenes and sounds can help you unwind, making sleep easier to achieve.

4. Watch what you eat.

The holidays make it difficult to stick to the meal plan you find best for your health and lifestyle. Dietary limits and needs can vary among those living with pulmonary hypertension patients. I’m a real pain in the butt to have as a guest because I limit my meat intake and try to avoid gluten and dairy.

Plus, salt is the biggest no-no of all of me! Here are some tips to help you stick to your dietary needs this holiday season without missing out on the festivities:

• If you are going to someone else’s house as a guest for a meal, be sure to let them know about any dietary requirements you have. If they’re unable to accommodate and prepare a meal that is safe for you, you can bring your own meal or eat before you arrive.

• If you eat dinner before you head over, you can always enjoy a small meal with everyone else while they eat. You could enjoy a salad (you can make no-sodium dressing very easily with balsamic vinegar and oil) or bread. Leafy greens can interfere with some blood thinners, so keep that in mind. I know this scenario doesn’t sound ideal, but this way you aren’t missing out on the bonding time that opens over meals during the holidays.

• For dining at a restaurant, be sure to let your server know about your dietary needs. I always tell my servers that I can’t have any salt, especially because meals can be heavily salted. I always tell servers I have a heart issue as well. I found that when I wore oxygen, servers were more diligent about my dietary needs. Once my illness became more invisible my meals started to become very salty — and dangerous. Explaining why I need low-sodium food has helped with that issue.

• Ask for condiments on the side. Sauces, dresses and gravy can all be very salty. If you ask for them on the side, you’re in control of how much extra sodium will be added to your meal.

• If you are preparing your own meals, look for no- to low-sodium products. Avoid pre-packaged items as they can be loaded with salt as a preservative.

• Alter your recipes as needed. Don’t be afraid to omit salt completely and add low- to no-sodium products that the recipe calls for. (For example, if a recipe calls for a certain kind of canned crushed tomatoes, find canned crushed tomatoes that don’t have sodium.)

5. Take care of yourself.

It’s difficult not to get caught up in the whirlwind of the holidays, but it’s important to take care of yourself. Make your happiness and health a priority. If those two things aren’t a priority for you, add them to your list of New Year’s resolutions.

• If you’re not feeling well enough to keep plans, you can reschedule. Your friends and family will be happier knowing you may be able to enjoy something more if it was put off until another day. I know a lot of us hate cancelling plans, but being tired, in pain and not feeling well make it nearly impossible to enjoy the good things the holidays have to offer. Your true friends and family will understand, and they’ll want what is best for you.

• Ask for help! Don’t hesitate to ask for assistance, especially if a helping hand can make a situation easier for you.

• Relax before, during or after an event. Do whatever you need to do to recharge, including taking a day or so to recoup after a gathering. I like to call these my “sloth” days. My sloth days consist of being lazy in cozy clothes, enjoying a cup of tea and cuddling with my dog, closest human or stuffed animal.

“Slothing” can include, but is not limited to, reading, binge-watching a good TV show, reading, drawing, surfing the web and meditation. Relax if you need to and don’t feel guilty about it. Everyone is entitled to a good sloth day, especially after making it through the holidays.

6. Enjoy the holidays!

Last, but not least, have fun and try to enjoy the holiday season as much as possible. I understand the holidays can be hard for a mixture of different reasons. Pulmonary hypertension affects everyone differently, and we all have different disabilities and issues when facing PH individually. Personally, I know things aren’t perfect. In fact, things can be really hard. But my struggles have made me wise to enjoying the good things while they roll.

• Utilize your “good days.” Say “yes” to opportunities if you feel well enough to take part and truly want to do. 

• Don’t be afraid to say “no” to anything that leaves you with anxiety or dread instead of joy. You don’t want to drive six hours for a two-hour dinner? Makes sense to me. If you would like to see everyone, but aren’t up for the drive, see if an alternative can be made. Remember that sometimes taking care of yourself, and being kind to yourself, means saying no to things that are too physically or emotionally demanding.

• Celebrate! If the festivities approach and you’re feeling well enough, go for it! Have fun! Make memories with your friends and families. Take pictures. Laugh and, most importantly, have fun.

• Make accommodations for yourself. Too tired to stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve? Make your own countdown. Go out or stay in. Dress up or celebrate in your comfy clothes. The most important thing is that you do whatever feels best for you. Do whatever will bring you the most bliss.

A version of this post originally appeared on Pulmonary Hypertension News.

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Originally published: December 20, 2016
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