Christmas carols, large crowds, flashing lights, potent perfume scents, sugary and processed foods — many joys of the holiday season can be triggering for those with chronic migraines. Not only are there environmental triggers, but there is also so much social pressure surrounding the season. There is the pressure to give thoughtful gifts, to celebrate with family and friends and to have merry attitude of holiday cheer and gratitude. I do love the sentiment behind the holiday season; the sights and sounds bring me back to my childhood and I enjoy basking in nostalgia and spending time with family. However, as an adult living with chronic daily headache and migraine demands, I make some adjustments to both my behaviors and expectations. Dealing with chronic pain doesn’t mean holidays can’t be fun anymore, but it does mean making smarter choices can both decrease stress and maximize joy this time of year.
Here are some things to keep in mind for this season:
1. There’s nothing wrong with store-bought pie.
This Thanksgiving, my aunt created an online sign-up sheet for our family dinner. Already, such a simple task unleashed all these silly anxieties: What can I bring? Gluten-free pie? What if I’m too sick the day before to cook it? What if I sign up to bring pie and cook it, but then, but then I’m too sick to join the celebration? As if the rest of my family’s Thanksgiving is going to be ruined if I don’t bring a damn pie. This thinking is all obviously over-the-top, but it is important to me to try to meaningfully contribute to my family’s celebration. It then dawned on me the only person putting this pressure on me to suddenly transform into Martha Stewart was myself. It also dawned on me that the pre-made gluten-free pies at the local grocery store, less than five minutes away from my apartment, were absolutely delicious. So I bought two gluten-free pies and called it a day.
Don’t make things harder than they need to be. If there is an expectation to contribute food a holiday gathering, or if you just want to do so, that doesn’t mean you have to create a homemade five-course meal from scratch. Your loved ones are not going to judge you for taking the simpler route due to your chronic pain.
2. Avoid procrastination.
Some people have a natural procrastinator personality. Perhaps this even your personality. Regardless, if you get migraines, it may be a good idea to re-think your approach. Stress can trigger nasty migraines, and planning can help alleviate some unnecessary stress.
I’ve been addressing my Christmas cards since mid-November. I am not planning on sending them out for weeks, but it helps me feel in control of my life when I get these little things done ahead of time. The same goes with gifts. It’s a lot less stressful to stroll through the mall and browse online sooner rather than later. The small things add up, and getting some of it done early can save us both a literal and metaphorical headache.
3. Know that if you can’t show up, that’s OK, too.
I’ve had to miss several holiday celebrations, including Christmas and Thanksgiving, due to chronic migraine. In fact, my biggest anxiety during this time of year is that I simply won’t be able to attend celebrations and will miss all the fun. While everyone else is partying, I’ll be in bed alone and in terrible pain.
While missing these special times in life is a sad reality for many of us, it’s important not to make this a bigger deal in our hearts and minds than it actually is. It doesn’t mean you’re missing out on all of life’s joys and it doesn’t mean there is now some big black mark on your holiday season.
Part of the beauty of the holiday season is that it’s an entire season, and thankfully, there is no law dictating that all the fun must be had on particular calendar days. If you do miss the big party, there’s no reason you can’t arrange to meet up with family and friends on a later day and have your own private or less formal celebrations later. And there’s also no reason you can’t take part of holiday spirit in the days leading up to the bigger celebrations. Regardless of whether you are sick or healthy, the holidays are for you, too.
I suppose it all really comes down to the cliche of remembering what this season is truly about. For most of us, these are times to feel gratitude and enjoy the company of loved ones. None of this includes stress, guilt, panic or worry. When these feelings start to arise, it’s time to take a deep breath, re-evaluate priorities and reset expectations. Your mental health is not worth any holiday party nor the batch of cookies you promised to bake. Really, this holiday season is just a more intensive opportunity to practice what you’ve been mastering the rest of the year: acceptance, patience, respecting your limits and being kind to yourself.