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Chronic Pain

How to Cope with Holiday Blues When Your Health Is Poor

A Personal Perspective: Four ways to cope with holiday sadness.

Key points

  • It is not your fault that you are sick or in pain. We’re in bodies, and bodies get sick and injured.
  • Self-blame and self-compassion are incompatible. I hope you’ll work on replacing the former with the latter.
  • Feeling happy for those who can do what you cannot eases your emotional pain.
Public Domain
Public Domain

This time of year, the media is filled with stories about families traveling to be with each other and friends gathering together. But for many of us, the holidays are a challenge. Due to chronic illness (which includes chronic pain) we want to participate in seasonal celebrations, but our ability to do so is limited. This can be painful.

It is for me. As I say in my book, How to Be Sick, one of the bitterest pills for me to swallow when I became chronically ill was that suddenly the activities that had brought me the greatest joy were the very activities that now exacerbated my symptoms. Visiting with people at holiday gatherings is one of those activities.

When my son and family arrive to share gifts and food, I’m thrilled to see everyone. I always start with a burst of energy, exactly the opposite of what I should be doing if I want to prolong my ability to hang out with everyone. (I think that burst of socializing is due to how much time I spend alone.)

I wrote in my last piece about how my battery only “charges” 25 percent overnight. You’d think that, with this limited energy, I’d have learned the importance of pacing myself by now. But sometimes I’m so excited to see everyone that pacing goes out the window. Unfortunately, it isn’t long before I’m living on borrowed energy in the form of adrenaline.

Using adrenaline to get by means there’s a “crash” in store for me before too long. This means I have to excuse myself and go lie down in the bedroom. It’s at this point, sadness and the blues hit. Based on the correspondence I receive, I know my experience is shared by others who struggle with their health.

What I’d like to offer are four things that can help when the sadness feels overwhelming—whether it happens when you must leave a gathering or whether it happens because you can’t participate in the first place.

1. Don’t blame yourself.

It’s not uncommon for those of us who suffer from chronic illness to think it’s our fault we can’t gather with others. I hear from people all the time who are convinced that their health problems are due to some moral failing or character defect on their part.

Let me set the record straight: It is not your fault that you are sick or in pain. We’re in bodies, and bodies get sick and injured. It comes with the human condition. It could happen to anyone, anytime.

It took me many years to stop blaming myself for being sick and in pain. But when I did, it was like laying down a heavy burden. The reward was that it enabled me to begin to treat myself with compassion. Self-blame and self-compassion are incompatible. I hope you’ll work on replacing the former with the latter.

2. Cultivate self-compassion.

The word “compassion” has become so commonplace that, in my view, it’s often lost its meaning. Here’s how to bring it to life.

Pick some phrases that fit your particular circumstance and repeat them silently or softly to yourself: “It was so hard to leave the gathering just when the conversation was getting good”; “I’m sad to be alone in the bedroom.” When you do this, you’re letting yourself know that you care about your suffering, and that’s soothing and healing.

If doing this brings tears to your eyes, it’s OK. They’re tears of compassion. To quote Lord Byron, “The dew of compassion is a tear.”

3. Work on feeling joy for others.

This is a Buddhist practice called mudita. It does take practice, so don’t get discouraged if it feels fake at first. Keep at it and it will become genuine.

To practice mudita, think about the good time others are having even though you’re not there, and see if you can feel happy for them.

If you feel envy instead, don’t blame yourself. Just acknowledge with compassion that this is what you’re feeling and then try mudita again. When I practice this, I imagine my loved one’s smiling faces and the sound of their laughter. After a time, I can’t help but feel happy for them. Often, I even start to feel joy myself, as if everyone is having a good time for me.

4. Practice tonglen.

This is my “go-to” practice for alleviating the sadness that can overcome me during the holidays. Tonglen is a compassion practice from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It’s counter-intuitive, which is why the Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön says that tonglen reverses the ego’s logic.

We’re usually told to breathe in peaceful and healing thoughts and images and to breathe out our pain and suffering. In tonglen practice we do the opposite—we breathe in the sadness of others and breathe out whatever kindness and compassion we have to offer them, even if it’s just a bit.

Here’s how I use tonglen when I feel overwhelmed by sadness and the blues at holiday time. I breathe in the sadness and pain of all those who are unable to be with family and close friends during the holidays. Then I breathe out whatever kindness and compassion I have to give them.

As I do this, I’m aware that I’m breathing in my own sadness and pain, and that when I breathe out kindness and compassion for them, I’m also sending those sentiments to myself. This why I like to call tonglen a two-for-one compassion practice—we’re not only cultivating kindness and compassion for others, we’re cultivating them for ourselves.

Practicing tonglen helps alleviate the blues because it makes us feel a deep connection to others who, like us, can’t fully participate in holiday festivities. If it’s too hard to breathe in other people’s sadness and pain, just bring them to mind and think about them with kindness and compassion.

My best to everyone during this season.

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