Navigating the Holidays with Chronic Pain

By Dr. Greg Harms

If you are living with chronic or episodic pain, the next two weeks may be the most difficult of the entire year for you.  The holidays come with a lot of pain triggers, which also increases the risk for depression and anxiety.  Of course, those then make the pain worse, and it can lead to a downward spiral.  Many of us would like the holidays to be a time of joy, happiness, and good times with family and friends.  Taking steps to manage pain triggers can help to ensure that we get this.

First, be aware that the holidays often come with increased pain triggers.  There is likely a lot more physical activity as you decorate, cook, travel, etc.  If you are at a gathering it is likely to be loud, crowded, and overheated (especially if you are at a friend’s or relative’s home and they are cooking a holiday dinner while everyone gathers).  Holiday lights can trigger headaches, especially if they are flashing.

The prevalence of alcohol and food could also lead to poor trigger management as alcohol itself can be a trigger for headaches as well can many of the delicious holiday foods, but if you are surrounded by them, it can be easy to give in to temptation and adopt an “enjoy it now and pay later” attitude.  Once you are aware of your pain triggers, you can keep an eye out for them and respond appropriately if you start getting bombarded by them.

Plan ahead to have some escape strategies or coping skills at hand.  You can try to arrive after the bulk of the cooking is done, sit facing away from flashing lights, excuse yourself to another room if it gets too loud or warm, and don’t feel guilty about having to duck out early.


Second, pace yourself.  The holidays are marked by frenzied activity, from shopping, to sending out cards, to decorating, to traveling.  It is difficult for anyone to keep up with our to-do lists.  In addition, the recent weather in many states makes it easy to procrastinate.  Who wants to deal with 10 inches of snow, icy roads, and sub-zero temperatures?    It’s better to stay in and stay in bed or snuggled under blankets on the sofa.  As we head into the final stretch this week, it can be easy to overcompensate and take on too much at one time.

Focus on what’s really important and just do that.  Build in break times and force yourself to sit for 10-15 minutes after an hour or hour and a half of work.  Things don’t have to be perfect, especially if it means that you’ll knock yourself out of commission and miss the celebration you put so much effort into making happen.

Lastly, focus on the positive.  If you do have to duck out of a family gathering early or go lay down in a quiet room for an hour or two, don’t let that ruin the whole experience.  You still got to spend time with your family (and at the holidays, who wants to spend more than a couple hours with family?  You’ve got a great reason to get away before people start drinking too much, arguing about the election, dredging up past hurts from 30 years ago, etc.). 

That’s what matters, and that’s what they’re going to remember, so you should as well.  If you don’t get all of the decorations up the way you have in the past, focus on what you did get up and how nice it is to have things looking cheery for the holidays.

Focus on what you did this year and don’t waste mental energy comparing it to previous years, or even to other peoples’ decorations this year.  It can be really easy to focus on what went wrong or to feel that we don’t measure up to other peoples’ standards, and that’s not what the holidays should be about.  Make the holidays what you want and focus on that, don’t let other people set the standard for a successful holiday for you.

With a little bit of strategy, you can make it through the next couple of weeks keeping the pain in check and enjoying whatever holiday you celebrate with your friends and loved ones.  As we move into the new year, consider making a resolution to talk with your doctor about treatment options to see what else might be possible to help manage your pain, and consider seeing a counselor and trying some behavioral health strategies to manage the pain.

Trying something new every once in a while can pay off big time as long as you keep an open mind.