Enjoy what you love this holiday season

Contributed by: Cindy
Reviewed by: Jonas I. Bromberg, Psy.D.

Living with chronic pain is a daily challenge. Your doctors and other healthcare providers can help you with medicines, physical therapy, and other treatments. But for coping with everyday life, the best advice often comes from other people like yourself—people with chronic pain.

For many of us, the winter holidays are full of festive occasions, delicious food, and time with friends and family. But when you have chronic pain, the holiday season may seem overwhelming and hard to enjoy.

Meet Cindy. Seventeen years ago, she had a workplace injury that resulted in debilitating pain in her back. Now she can only stand or sit up for about an hour at a time— but she’s found ways to continue doing the things that mean the most to her, including celebrating the holidays. In our conversation with her, Cindy shared her three top holiday strategies. Maybe one of them will make it easier for you to enjoy your favorite holiday celebrations, too.

How has your chronic pain interfered with enjoying the holidays?

I have always associated the holidays with attending parties with family and friends and traveling to New York City to enjoy the bright lights, decorations, entertainment and the excitement of the city! After my accident—and the pain it brought to my life on a daily basis—I worried about how and even if I would be able to participate in these activities that gave me such joy. Going to parties used to mean having fun, meeting new people, enjoying holiday food, and celebrating.  But parties require a lot of standing and talking, and now that means discomfort, wondering if there will be couches to stretch out on, and thinking about how awkward I might feel lying down with so many people around giving me strange looks.  Over the years though, I’ve figured out how to enjoy this festive time of year even with pain.

How do you deal with your chronic pain challenges to enjoy the holidays?

My three main strategies are:

  • Pacing and knowing my limits
  • Planning ahead and asking for help
  • Recruiting a pain monitor

My mantra for holiday parties is half a party is better than no party at all! Knowing my limits and sticking to them has allowed me enjoy the holidays in ways that are important to me. Since standing for an hour at a time is my max, I make sure that I enjoy that hour and then I’ll leave or find a place to lie down. I still enjoy the event, even if I spend less time there than I would have in the past. It’s important that people living with pain socialize, enjoy the company of family and friends, and decrease the isolation that can sometimes come with the pain. While someone’s specific limitations may be different than mine, all people who live with pain need to understand their limits and pace themselves to maximize their enjoyment of the holidays.

I’ve also learned that planning ahead and asking for help is crucial at holiday time. Even in cases where I may not know the party hosts that well, I’ve found that people are very understanding when I explain my situation. I call ahead and ask if there is a couch or quiet space where I can put my mat down and stretch out. If I’m planning to cook a dish or two for a party, I start the preparation ahead of time and do it in one-hour blocks of time. I shop, cook one thing at a time, and store it all – again, it’s all about pacing myself and planning. I prepare all of it in a way that allows me to really enjoy the actual day. The planning helps ensure that I’m not wiped out by the time the festivities start. And I’ve learned a huge lesson. Parties and gatherings are more about being withmy family or friends, rather than preparing an award-winning Martha Stewart meal! I never thought I’d be able to do this, but sometimes I’ll order take-out as the hostess. I’ve discovered that people don’t care about the take-out – everyone is used to taking out these days. Changing my perspective has been a huge help in bringing the joy of the holidays back.

Planning ahead also makes it possible for me to attend the live performances—theater, dance, and concerts—that my husband and I love. I now call and ask for the head usher or theater manager before the event to ask some questions. Are there intermissions? What time does the show begin and end? Is there a spot somewhere out of the way where I can roll out my mat and get some flat time? I explain my disability and usually find that they are helpful and accommodating.

Have I been embarrassed? Yes, but I’ve learned to swallow my embarrassment and focus on taking care of myself so I can enjoy the event. Switching roles in my head has helped me, too. What would I do if a friend or guest called me and asked me for an accommodation of some kind? I would naturally want to help. Thinking like that makes it easier to make the calls and lie down when I need to.

One of my newest strategies is appointing a “pain monitor” – someone who will watch the clock at events and ensure that I’m not overdoing it. I can easily lose track of time, and I’d pay for it later with horrendous pain. My fabulous husband is usually my pain monitor. He’s the “bad cop” and keeps me from doing too much or over-exerting myself. This strategy works well and I highly recommend enlisting others to help in this way.

I am a person who happens to live with pain, but I’m not a chronic pain patient. People with pain can participate in life and find great enjoyment. Through pacing myself, planning ahead, asking for help, and using a pain monitor, I really enjoy the holidays!