How to navigate the holidays with a health condition
The holiday season can bring unique challenges for those who are managing a health condition. While shared meals, travel, gift exchanges, and family gatherings can be fun, they can also be stressful. Here are a few important things to keep in mind if you or a loved one is managing a health condition this holiday season.
Traveling with a health condition can be taxing. If you are planning to travel this holiday season, follow these tips:
- Talk to your doctor before you travel for any recommendations they may have that are specific to your condition.
- Put together a detailed itinerary of your trip. In this itinerary, stick to your usual health routines as much as you can. Account for all necessary mealtimes, medication needs, rest time, bathroom breaks, or other important aspects of your daily routine.
- Research your route and destination ahead of time, noting important things like pharmacies, rest stops, and health facilities.
- Pack your own snacks, especially if you have unique dietary needs.
- Always travel with your medications in your purse or carry-on luggage, along with a list of emergency contacts and phone numbers in the event your phone battery dies.
- If you are planning on getting travel insurance, be sure to check the fine print. Make sure you get a policy that covers preexisting conditions or other aspects specific to your health. A travel agent can be especially helpful for finding the right travel insurance.
Sharing a home-cooked holiday meal can be a great reason to gather with loved ones. It can also be stressful or alienating for those who have restrictive diets, allergies, or special dietary needs.
- If you are a guest with special dietary restrictions, make sure to communicate with your host at least a week ahead of time. This gives you both plenty of time to plan so you can enjoy the meal too.
- If you are hosting a meal, it’s polite to ask your guests ahead of time if they have any restrictions. This can help make your guests feel welcome, especially those who are excited to attend your event but may be hesitant to speak up about their dietary needs.
- Never criticize or comment on someone’s eating habits or choices during a meal. You may not fully understand their dietary needs, restrictions, or limitations.
Exchanging gifts around the holidays can be a delightful way to show your love for friends and family. However, it can also be stressful, especially for those who have unique financial circumstances or other health considerations. Follow these tips to keep your gift exchange accessible:
- Agree on a price limit or budget ahead of time. This will help everyone manage expectations for what they can and should be spending.
- Give your group a way to share their wish lists. Free online tools like Elfster can be a great way to let people share their wishes.
- If you or your family have special considerations, share that with the group. For example, certain health conditions can mean that candy, coffee, tea, scented candles or lotions, or other foods are off-limits. There’s no need to go into detail if you’re not comfortable, a simple note that says “Please no sweets” will do the trick. Always respect someone’s wish list requests, especially for parents who are managing gift exchanges for their children.
- After the exchange, acknowledge your gift with a thank you note. Hand-written thank you notes are wonderful, but a text, call, or email is acceptable as well. If you got something in your “off-limits” list, thank the sender for their generosity and simply donate or regift the item—don’t send it back or criticize the sender.
Socializing with friends and family
Many people may be looking forward to socializing with friends and family again, especially after years of COVID-19 distancing. However, for those managing any kind of health condition, gatherings could also be a source of stress. During a recent Ask the Expert on Coping During the Holidays, Mental Health America’s Licensed Professional Counselor Niya McCray-Brown shared these words of wisdom.
“While navigating the social stress of the holidays, you can consider proactively checking in on your social battery (or how much energy you have to be social/active) at given times throughout the day. By doing this you are more likely to notice in advance if you are starting to feel depleted and you can take the steps to rest and re-fuel! For example, if you notice you are feeling particularly overwhelmed before family dinner, consider taking 3-5 minutes of private time outside or in a private room (bathrooms are great for this) and taking some deep breaths or just clearing your mind. By giving yourself permission to take necessary breaks, you are more likely to remain present while you enjoy your family and friends.
*** Pro Tip, Consider setting a reminder in your phone to check in with yourself so you don’t forget. If you feel good and your social battery is high, that’s great! But if not, maybe this is a good time to use a self-care skill.***”
When it comes to navigating sensitive topics or difficult conversations, Niya McCray-Brown shared these best practices:
Boundaries: Proactively identifying boundaries that are important to you, and ways you can maintain a sense of emotional safety when divisive topics arise, is one strategy to empower you in this difficult situation. For example, practicing phrases like “I love you, but I disagree, and I am not interested in talking more about this” is one way to decrease the stress associated with those conversations. You can also create a list (in your phone or a small piece of paper) of unspoken strategies you can use to decrease your stress and set a physical boundary with those conversations. Leaving the room, going to the restroom, leaving to take a call, washing dishes, using body language to express disinterest among many other things can also send the message of your desire not to participate.
Affirmations: You may also consider preparing and practicing an affirmation that you can repeat to yourself mentally when managing the stress associated with these interactions. Examples of these include “I get to have my values, and they get to have theirs” or “Our differences can co-exist with our love”. Feel free to get creative here, speak to yourself the way you may speak to a friend who is dealing with a similar situation.
Teamwork: Lastly, if you feel up to it, it may be helpful to set the tone during the visit, and collaborate with your family on an agreement to avoid divisive topics. Beginning a family visit by sharing “I really want us to remain present in our love for each other today, what can we do to avoid getting distracted by our differences” might be one way to initiate an agreement that works for everyone. Examples of this include, a mutual signal or hand sign when things get out of hand, or even a code word if someone would not like to participate. Have fun with it. If available, consider communicating your nervousness with a trusted loved one beforehand and ask for their buy in keeping the conversation in a positive direction or helping you communicate your boundaries if needed.
Read more from Niya McCray-Brown in our Ask the Expert: Coping During the Holidays.
“Keep your face always toward the sunshine, and shadows will fall behind you.”
– Walt Whitman