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Chronic Illness and the Holidays

Experts describe strategies to let people with chronic illness enjoy the holidays.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Rosalind Joffe, MEd, once hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for 22 people at her house. She planned it months in advance. She hired someone to clean. She created a menu and delegated various dishes to guests. A friend came over the day before the holiday to set the table. Relatives were assigned jobs to serve dinner and clean up afterwards. Joffe has the planning sense of Martha Stewart. She also has multiple sclerosis (MS) and ulcerative colitis.

While it was challenging to host Thanksgiving, she says she'd have felt worse if she hadn't. "The key was advance planning," she tells WebMD. "What I've learned is if I ask for help in advance, even with my own family, people don't feel put upon. They feel they're a part of the event."

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Joffe is among the many people living with chronic illness -- defined as lasting more than three months, being persistent or recurrent, having a significant health impact, and typically being incurable. So, with Christmas and Hanukkah at hand, times when everyone is supposed to participate and feel cheerful, what are some strategies for coping?

Do Holidays Make Chronic Illnesses Worse?

There's always the temptation to abandon healthful living routines around the holidays. Eating too much, not getting enough exercise, staying up late, worrying about family members getting along -- all these things can make you feel worse. But do they negatively affect your health?

Joffe, who coaches people with chronic illness in the Boston area to thrive in the workplace, says it depends on the disease. "With diabetes, heart conditions, or epilepsy, for example, you must take care of yourself or the disease gets worse. With autoimmune diseases, such as MS, fibromyalgia, or lupus, your symptoms will get worse but not the disease itself.

What about the holiday blues? Do the holidays really bring on episodes of depression? Michael Thase, MD, during a WebMD Live Event, said geography could play a role. "As people living in the northern hemisphere, we seem to be somewhat more prone to development of depression in the fall and winter months. The fact that this period of risk coincides with our holidays is kind of like a bad coincidence. For example, I'm not sure that I've encountered any writing about the holiday blues in New Zealand, Australia, or South Africa."

Speak Up

"Holidays act like a lightning rod where all the physical and social concerns around chronic illness get really highlighted," says Patricia Fennell, MSW, LCSW-R. She explains that the demands and expectations around holidays can "out" people whose conditions were hardly noticeable. During the year, they spend so much of their energy working and handling the daily chores of living that they have little time left for socializing. Come the holidays, they're expected to show up and contribute.

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