Having a Stress-Free Holiday Season When You Have MS

By: Jeri Burtchell

Each year, I judge how well prepared I am for the holidays by the way Halloween plays out. When I saw my son donning the same scary mask we bought several years ago, I realized I’m as ill-prepared as ever. We’re lucky it still fits, I think to myself as holiday dread settles squarely on my shoulders.

The problem with his costume is not that we aren’t creative, it’s just that life is busy and time slips through our fingers like greased marbles these days. We end up making last minute plans and this Halloween was no exception: get the plastic pumpkin off the top of the fridge and start searching the house for that mask (two hours before Trick-or-Treat officially kicks off). I’m not creating the perfect childhood memories for my son, I fret to myself as I look under the bed for the face from Scream.

The limitations that my MS fatigue and reduced walking ability have placed on me are showing. I’m not looking forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas with the same enthusiasm as I once did. I’m filled with angst as part of me wants the ultimate “joyful” experience, while the other part just wants it all to be over.

But the holiday season is stressful for everyone. The difference is some people thrive on the stress, which they call “anticipation.” But others like myself are filled with dread. Ever since I was diagnosed with MS in 1999 it seems like I stopped looking forward to the time between Halloween and New Year’s Day. I think it’s because I worry about stress triggering a relapse. And then part of me feels guilty because the children in the family aren’t getting the full “magical” experience.

While I do face physical challenges, my MS isn’t the only factor shaping our family holidays. Mom is 91, and though she’s still undeniably the sharpest knife in the drawer, she doesn’t get around as easily as she once did. Still other family members are living with everything from lactose intolerance to diabetes which influences the dinner menu.

But we are managing. Together our family is learning to adjust to our new collective “normal”. We’re redefining what our get-togethers look like. The emphasis is on comfort and ease while downplaying commercialism. So what if the tree isn’t up or we don’t have a full turkey dinner with all the trimmings? We can define the celebration on our own terms.

The holiday dinners will be potluck so that we can each focus on one dish and prepare it ahead of time. Nobody will be banished to the kitchen and make-ahead dishes can be prepared when the cook (or baker) is feeling up to it.

With dinner prepared in advance, we’ll be free to enjoy each other’s company. The conversations, the laughs, the squealing children, and the photo ops will fill our memories of the day.

If Mom has to take a nap or I have to go lay down for a while, that’s okay. Everyone knows we both have our limits.

At Thanksgiving we’ll draw names for Christmas gift giving. Everyone ends up with a present but only shops for one person instead of ten. With a $20 limit and the convenience of online shopping, we can eliminate the stress of holiday crowds. We’re trying to make it more about the get-together and less about “what-did-I-get?”

Over the past fifteen years, I’ve come to learn a lot about managing my MS. I need plenty of rest, I need to eat right, and I need to exercise. But it’s just as important to reduce the stress in my life. Not only is it bad for MS, but for everyone’s health in general. By reducing the amount of effort (and stress) it takes to pull off a family gathering, we’re really looking out for our health.

The holidays should be about family, love, togetherness, and appreciation for every positive thing in our lives.

So when next year rolls around and my son is reaching for the same old scary mask at Halloween, I’m going to go a little easier on myself. The mask can be a new tradition, a symbol of how we can let go of society’s expectations. It will signal the start of a stress-free holiday season and–with the help of my family–I know we can do this!

References:
http://www.healthline.com/video/managing-multiple-sclerosis

*Jeri Burtchell was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999. She has spoken from a patient perspective at conferences around the country, addressing social media and the role it plays in designing clinical trials. Jeri is a MS blogger, patient activist, and freelance writer for the MS News Beat of Healthline.com. She lives in northeast Florida with her youngest son and elderly mother. When not writing or speaking, she enjoys crafting and photography.

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Planning for a Stress-Free Holiday

With Thanksgiving a little over a week away, many families have already started planning for the holiday season. Who is hosting, who’s making the turkey, and who will be opening their home to holiday guests this season? As if the actual day wasn’t hectic enough, with the shuffling around of foods, the constant chatter, and all of the hugs and kisses; why stress this upcoming week in preparation?

The following tips may help keep this holiday season a little less stressful:

1. Make a plan: Start by listing out each of the tasks that need to be accomplished. Breaking them down into groups can help keep things organized (i.e. cleaning, shopping, cooking).

2. Ask for help: Be prepared to delegate tasks to others. Go through the list and identify tasks that can easily be accomplished by someone else. Family and friends are usually asking, “What can we do or what can we bring?” Use this opportunity to check something off that list.

3. Practice self-care: Take breaks throughout the day; do not push through to finish a check list. Find a good mix of tasks that you enjoy with ones that are less pleasurable; when it comes down to choosing one or the other, always choose the one that makes you happy.

In what ways do you plan for a stress-free holiday?

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It’s all relative.

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Sometimes it may seem like things are spiraling. Maybe the bills are piling up, the stress level in managing home life or work is rising, and you are worried that you are headed for an MS Relapse if you keep going at your current pace. When things feel like they are outside of your control, it is easy to “cycle”  or consistently think of the negative aspects of what is going on. The whirlwind of negativity can affect not only your mood and health, but also your relationships and ability to accurately read cues from others and be empathetic.

When your co-worker is acting totally checked out and you are annoyed that she hasn’t helped you with a joint project, you might think she is acting uncaring, but maybe she didn’t tell you her brother is very sick in the hospital. When the dentist office calls for the third time to cancel your appointment and you just feel like screaming at the scheduler, you may not know that she is stressed out because other office staff keep flaking out on their scheduled appointments and making her job harder.

Yes, it is okay to have a bad day or a bad week. It is okay to not put on a “fake it ’till you make it” smile when you feel like nobody understands what you are dealing with, but when you start to get caught up in the negativity tornado and are on the borderline of snapping, remember that everyone is dealing with something. Yes, some of those “somethings” are more manageable than others, but they all impact and make a difference in the lives of the people living them. Focusing on the idea that everyone is living their own journey with different successes and challenges can help us to maintain balance; we are not alone for the ride. When things start to spiral, try to remember that everything is relative.

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Developing New Ways of Thinking

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“Optimism is like a muscle. Gets stronger with use.”-Robin Roberts

Taking an optimistic view rather than focusing on negative thoughts can benefit your overall mental well-being. While it might take some time, eventually you may find that thinking positively starts to come more naturally. Consider putting some of the following tips into practice.

List five things that you are grateful for right now. Let this practice become a part of your daily or weekly routine. It may be helpful to hang your list in a spot where you may come across it often, so that you can take a moment to think about what you are grateful for.

Live in the present. Too much focus on future and past events can distract our minds from what is important today. Meditation and yoga can help in centering the mind and body, allowing you to identify with yourself in the present moment.

Surround yourself with positive people. Positive thought patterns are contagious, so surround yourself with people who make you happy and are optimistic.

Positive thinking and optimism does not come overnight, and you do not need to be a positive perfectionist. It may be challenging to try and find the positive in every aspect of your life – health, finances, relationships, and/or work. Focusing in one area will aid in building the skills to transfer into the other areas of your life.

What helps you to maintain positive thoughts?

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Reducing Internal Stressors and the “and, AND, AND” Mentality

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Stress is something that everyone confronts in their lives. Stress broadly falls into two categories – external stressors where another person or entity is pushing you harder and asking for more, more, more (more of your time, more of energy both physical and mental, and more than you can handle). I think everyone is familiar with the external stressors- a school deadline, a boss that keeps piling more on your plate, appointments and activities you need to get to…these can all add external stress.

The other lesser acknowledged form of stress stems from internal pressures. Internal stress arises when you place restrictions, parameters, and deadlines on yourself, where you strive harder and work longer and try to be “perfect” or to be everything you think you can and should be for everyone and more.

I’ll give you an example. The schedule says you work from 8-5 and get an hour for lunch, that is the schedule you are paid for BUT the phone is ringing, and a new project is assigned, and the work is piling up (external stressors) so your internal response is to come in a little early and only take 20 minutes for your lunch breaks and maybe on some days you stay a little later too. Before you know it you are working 5-10 additional hours each week. Sure you are getting the work done but you aren’t being compensated extra, and everyone else is taking their lunch breaks.

Sometimes people use internal stressors because they are motivated by something specific (i.e. if my boss sees me accomplishing so much maybe I can earn the promotion, and some day make it to the corner office) or maybe you love your job and are motivated by what you think you can accomplish (i.e. I’m saving the world one day and one life at a time, GO ME!) but whatever the reason at some point those additional self-imposed stressors will catch up to you. And frankly at the end of the day while your boss might acknowledge all of your hard work it is just as likely that they will raise their expectations of you, so that without a big promotion you are stuck doing all the extra work and if you try to cut back on the “extras” your boss may wonder why you can’t accomplish what you used to!

These internal stressors don’t just apply to the workplace, they may cause anxiety over what you need to do-“I’ve got to clean the house before Janice comes over to visit, but when will I have the time and energy.” If Janice is truly a friend she will understand that life got in the way and that your house can’t always be impeccable. Don’t worry, Janice already knows that you are human.

You may be asking why is it important to acknowledge when a stressor is internal or self-imposed and try to reduce those actions or thought patterns. Stress is well known to impact health. Stress has been attributed to developing or exacerbating changes in mood such as increasing worry/anxiety, but stress has also been linked to physical health including affects to sleep, cognition, and increasing levels of burnout/fatigue. On the more severe end of the spectrum, stress has been linked to heart attacks, ulcers, and has also been correlated with MS Relapses among other health issues. So, while you may not be able to stop your boss from dumping 500 projects on your desk or keep your house in a perpetually spotless state, you can put in place an internal protection system: Remind yourself that there will always be work for tomorrow no matter how much work you do today, and that friends, family, and neighbors don’t expect you to be “perfect.” Finally, let yourself know that it is okay to ask for help when you need it. Don’t be your own worst enemy, prioritize your health and try your best to stop or reduce that internal voice saying and, AND, AND.

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Wait a second, did you get that?

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Being able to effectively communicate with others is one of the most basic human needs and functions. Babies and young children cry or throw tantrums when they don’t get what they want or need because they haven’t discovered any better ways to express their concerns or desires. They need to be heard, but they can’t express their concerns directly so they resort to raw emotion and yelling to get their needs met.

As we grow older, we are taught that there is a time and place for everything and that generally when speaking in public (school, work, etc.), you need to do your best to control your emotions and try to calmly verbally address your needs or concerns. For example, in a business meeting while you might feel like rolling your eyes at an inane comment, or may even feel like yelling when your point hasn’t been heard or addressed after asking for the 100th time, responding in either of those ways in a work setting is likely to get you a reprimand at best and unlikely to get you what you really wanted (for example a shorter meeting with highlighted objectives, or a specific problem or concern to be addressed).

These communication issues don’t only happen in the workplace setting as you might have times where you feel like your doctor is just not hearing what you are saying or a relative is being insensitive or un-relatable. When you end up in these frustrating situations, you might have the impulse to cry or yell, and sometimes that might supersede your public decorum, but these also may be good times to evaluate your situation and how you could better try to communicate your need.

So how do you take a step back when you need to make sure something is heard?

You may need to take five minutes before speaking to give yourself time to process a more tactful response. You might pretend you are re-explaining the situation to a totally
Older male doctor with laptop talking to middle-age male patientdifferent person. You may also ask the other person to repeat back to you your concern in their own words, so you can make sure they “got it.”

Feeling misunderstood or like no one is listening can heighten your anxiety, stress, and frustration around a situation. Others can contribute to misunderstandings and miscommunications if they are not being active listeners and receptive participants in the conversation, but try to do your part. Try and emote effective communication. If the other party really is not listening, or you can’t overcome personal barriers, you can try to remediate the situation by going to others with your concerns (in the worst case scenario finding a new doctor or changing jobs…. although I’m told you can’t get a new family).

Can you share your tips for how to communicate better in difficult situations?

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