How to Navigate the Holidays With Fibromyalgia and ME/CFS

Woman laying on sofa behind a christmas tree and gift bags

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The holiday season is supposed to be a happy time, but it comes with a lot of stress and expectations. It can be a trying time even for healthy people, and for those with fibromyalgia (FMS) and chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), it can turn into the worst time of the year.

It doesn't take long to learn that negative events (i.e., stressful incidents, confrontations) make you feel a lot worse. But have you also connected happy events to a downturn in your health?

For people with FMS and ME/CFS, stress could even be triggered by special or joyful events. Activities or events that are outside the realm of your normal everyday routine can certainly rev up symptoms.

It doesn't seem like a stretch that an emotional, high-energy-output day can take a toll even without the negative effects of stress-system activation and anxiety. Just being social for several hours takes enough energy to wipe you out. Throw in too much sugar and maybe a dash of alcohol, and it's a perfect recipe for a good, old-fashioned holiday crash.

The sad thing about this is that you need those good times! Who wants to spend their lives avoiding fun and happiness? Fortunately, while your illness may not be under our control, how you live with it is. Sometimes, you may just need to accept the consequences of having a special day.

Also, it can help to think a little more about planning for fun events: the lead up to them, the events themselves, and the aftermath.

The resources here can help you manage all the aspects of the holiday season that make it difficult, and there are a lot of them! It can be overwhelming to try figuring it all out at once, so take your time and focus on what you most need first.

The Planning Stage of the Holiday Season

The sheer volume of stuff to do to prepare for the holidays can make you want to run away and hide. It's helpful to set priorities so you know what to focus on first, and what can go by the wayside if you run out of time or energy.

The best thing to do is to start early and really spread out the work. If you're getting started later, though, that's perfectly fine. Just know that you may need to manage your expectations a little more.

Strategies that can help when things get busy—and not only during the holidays—are:

  • Pacing yourself: conserving your energy and taking it slowly
  • Saying "no": overextending yourself can lead to triggered symtpoms

The holiday season emphasizes the need for these skills, so there's no better time to start practicing these good habits.

Here's one final bit of good advice from one of your fellow readers:

"Stop before you're ready to stop. If you go until you're too tired to do more then you'll crash. When you think 'I'll just do one or two more things, or visit one or two more shops, or go down one or two more aisles'—don't! Thinking this is your cue that you should stop—works for me. Keep it simple. Decorate—but not as much, celebrate—but not as much, cook if you can—but not as much."

The Lead-Up: Food, Shopping, Gifts, Travel

Regardless of what retailers want you to think, most people consider Thanksgiving the official start of the holiday season. From then on, it seems like there's a bombardment of food. This can be challenging for those who have food allergies or sensitivities. Here's where the strategy to say "no" may come in handy—if you've been dining out too often, it's OK to kindly decline an invitation.

Next, we come to the day after Thanksgiving—Black Friday. Even the thoughts of someone with these conditions in the middle of Black Friday mayhem can make you shudder. Why? Let's count the ways!

  1. You'll probably be too worn out from Thanksgiving day.
  2. You can't afford to lose the sleep.
  3. It's too much exertion.
  4. Waiting outside in the cold is especially rough for those with temperature sensitivity.
  5. The chaos of it can lead to over-stimulation, anxiety, panic attacks, and flares.

Yes, the incredible savings are amazing, but these days, a lot of stores have "doorbusters" online as well. This is one time when insomnia may be a bonus since the sales start at midnight.

Even shopping during a more "normal" time can be tough, since walking through the stores and crowds could easily lead to exhaustion.

When it comes to people shopping for you, do you sometimes receive gifts that you can use because of your FMS or ME/CFS symptoms or sensitivities? It might help to give your friends and family some gifting guidelines.

And don't forget to give extra thought to traveling during the holidays. A busy travel schedule can be taxing, so it's a good idea to remember to plan ahead and pace yourself.

Aftermath

It's pretty much inevitable that you're not going to feel good on December 26. If at all possible, just stay home and rest. The more time you can take, the better.

If that's not an option, do the bare minimum and take good care of yourself. You should probably be prepared for a flare.

New Year's Resolutions

Of course, New Year's Eve is just around the corner from Christmas. If you're considering a resolution, and want to make it stick, it helps to approach it in the right way by setting a small, attainable goal.

Holiday Depression

No matter how careful you are, symptoms can still knock you down and spoil your plans. Some may be alone or may feel left out and forgotten as people celebrate around them.

Whatever the cause, holiday depression can become a reality for anyone. The resources below can help you identify the problem and begin to deal with it.

If your feelings start to overwhelm you and you're thinking about suicide, or know someone who might be, call or visit:

In the U.S. alone, it is estimated that up to 2.5 million people have ME/CFS, and even more have FMS. Depression is often an underlying condition of these illnesses. But thanks to the Internet, you are never alone, and you never have to bear the full burden of your illness alone. Finding out that someone out there understands and cares about you can make all the difference.

If you know someone who might be feeling alone or depressed right now, reach out to them in some way. If you think someone you know is suicidal, get them help before it's too late.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. ME/CFS & Fibromyalgia Self Help. The double challenge of stress in ME/CFS and fibromyalgia.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is ME/CFS? Updated July 12, 2018.

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