by Julie Ryan
Posted 12/15/17

Even the biggest holiday lovers can feel more stressed now than any other time of the year. For those of us with chronic illnesses like fibromyalgia, Lyme, and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, the challenges are even greater. However, we can still have plenty of fun with friends and family if we’re properly prepared. Here’s how I’ve learned to minimize top holiday stressors and successfully navigate the season.

Challenge #1: Shopping for Gifts

I recently saw a post from a friend denouncing the concept of waiting until the holidays to give gifts. Her thought instead was that we should buy and give gifts whenever we see something that makes us think of someone, no matter the time of year. As a result, she doesn’t give Christmas presents—and just like that, her last-minute scramble and stress to find the “perfect gift” is gone, guilt-free.

I really like this idea, so my first tip for avoiding the stress of holiday gift giving is to simply not give holiday gifts. It’s not a necessity, and most would agree that we’d rather know we are thought of all year long and prefer to enjoy quality time with those we love.

But if gift-giving is one of your favorite holiday things, by all means—keep giving! Whether you go the year-round route or prefer to stick with the season, there are simple ways to take the stress out of the shopping process:

  • Make like Santa and make a list. When you go randomly looking for that one perfect thing for someone, you may never find it—talk about stress! Instead, know before you go. Keep notes throughout the year of what your loved ones enjoy and mention that they’d like to have. And don’t be afraid to ask if they have an Amazon wish list. Use that and you’ll really know you’re getting something they want, but aren’t willing to buy for themselves.
  • Get into gift cards. Many people hesitate to give gift cards because they worry they’re impersonal, but in reality, people love them because they can get exactly what they want, no exchanges or returns to worry about. The key is choosing a brand you’re confident they’ll love—a shop they frequent or restaurant they dine at regularly—so it’s both thoughtful and guaranteed to be put to good use.
  • Avoid the crowds. Fortunately, that’s easier now than ever. You can shop online (buy early to avoid the angst of shipping delays) or in stores during off-peak hours (weekday mornings, or late night if you’re a night owl—many stores have extended hours). Avoid Black Friday and other special sales, and look for local events like college football games or big concerts that typically keep people away from the stores.

Challenge #2: Decorating

I love looking at holiday decorations, but I hate putting them up and taking them down. Therefore, how much decorating I do depends on how well I feel that year. There have been a few years where I didn’t put up a single decoration, and it was totally OK. Sometimes the best solution for dealing with holiday decorations is to simply not decorate.

But if decorating is a necessity (maybe you’re hosting this year), or unlike me you love the process, there are options.

  • Keep it simple. You don’t have to string lights from the top of the house or cover every corner in tinsel to enjoy the view. For instance, holiday laser light shows allow you to wash the outside of your house in seasonal colors in one simple step. For indoor decorations, you can find smaller, pre-lit trees that require nothing more than unfolding a few limbs and hanging the ornaments (from a chair, if you like).
  • Enlist help. If you have children in the house, decorating is a fun activity for them that allows you to spend quality time together — just don’t get hung up on the ornaments being hung a certain way. No kids? Ask some friends to come over for decorating and hot cider. (Getting them to come back to help you take everything down may be a little more difficult — and this might be why some of us still have our holiday tree up at Easter.) If you can afford to pay someone to decorate for you, there are plenty of professional services that do both outdoors and indoors.

Challenge #3: Hosting Dinner

If you’re not feeling up to the cooking and cleaning that goes into hosting a big holiday meal, the best answer is don’t do it. Even if your home has always been the gathering place for holiday dinners, it’s never too late to change up tradition. Reach out to other family members and ask them to host, or suggest a restaurant so everyone can relax.

If you can’t break away from the idea of hosting the holiday meal, here are a few options to consider.

  • Make it a potluck. You are already providing the place; let everyone else bring their favorite holiday dish.
  • Get it catered. Most major grocery stores, as well as many restaurants, offer pre-cooked turkeys and hams, not to mention sides and desserts.
  • Skip the dishes. Rather than pulling out the fancy china — and later, washing it all — opt for disposable plates and cutlery. For fancy yet affordable options to set a beautiful table, check out sites like Posh Party Supplies for package sets of plates, cutlery, and champagne flutes.

Challenge #4: Traveling

It’s prime travel season, and more people in transit means more stress for everyone, especially those of us with chronic illnesses. The #1 option for dealing with holiday travel? Avoid it altogether. (Have you noticed a trend here?)

That said, I understand the desire to be with those who matter most at special times. So here are some suggestions for limiting the stress of the journey itself.

  • Pick one destination, and stay put. In other words, don’t split your time between your family and your partner’s, or overschedule the days you’re back in your hometown with numerous catch-ups with high school friends. Set up camp in one spot, and let everyone else know where you are and why you’re lying low—they’ll understand and come to you.
  • Choose your best travel method. If packed airports and cramped seats wipe you out, it may be worth the extra time it takes to drive if it means sitting in the comfort of your own car.
  • Pack for comfort. Keep a bag handy that contains things that decrease the effects of travel, like your favorite pillow, your pain medications, a sweater, calming essential oils, and whatever else will make you most cozy.
  • Allow for adequate recovery time. Whether you’re travelling across town or across the country, schedule plenty of time on the front end to recuperate before the festivities begin (i.e., a few hours or even a full day of R&R before the rest of your family arrives). Then do the same on the back end once you’re home and before you return to work and normal life. This can be hard, as we often feel guilty for taking extra time away from work or not spending every possible moment with our family, but fighting your body’s needs only means you’ll feel worse longer.

If the mere thought of all this planning is stressing you out, remember that the holidays are meant to be cherished, not a chore. So do what you can to enjoy these days as much as possible, and don’t sweat the rest of it.

Julie Ryan is a patient advocate. She has written for, and regularly shares on her blog CountingMySpoons. She lives with fibromyalgia, migraines, endometriosis, cluster headaches, and thyroid disorder, but she chooses to live positively, despite her illnesses, and encourages you to do the same.