How to Have Happier Holidays With RA

Give yourself the gift of better mental health and fewer flare days by keeping this season simple.

by Lene Andersen, MSW Patient Advocate

Joy to the world, the holidays are almost here! It is the most wonderful time of the year, filled with togetherness, beautiful celebrations, twinkle lights, and lots of wonderful food. For the people responsible for pulling it all together, it is also the most stressful time of the year, which tends to spell doom when you live with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). In the effort to make magic for family and friends, you also create the perfect storm of ingredients for a massive post-holiday flare. Add a global pandemic to that and you might be wondering how on earth you’ll get through it all. Fear not, I’m here to help you get perspective and a plan.

Gaining perspective often starts with taking a look at what causes you to lose it in the first place, so let’s review the top challenges to celebrating the holidays with RA. The driving force is the myth of the picture-perfect holiday. It’s an admirable goal, but real life is different, messier, and it or RA inevitably gets in the way. That aspirational holiday leads to making grand plans for decorations and activities, which are quite frankly a check your body can’t cash. But somehow, you keep trying to single-handedly create the kind of holiday that social media influencers have a large team to do, while you try to be all things to everyone, and likely prioritizing everyone’s—anyone’s?—needs above your own. Cue fatigue and flares that you ignore while powering through, thus guaranteeing the aforementioned crash, leaving you on the couch for days, even weeks. That’s never a good thing, but can be extra depressing at this time of year.

A gentle reminder: In the future, when your family remembers the holidays, what makes them magical is you being part of it, not that it was worthy of a slick magazine. In my book Chronic Christmas: Surviving the Holidays with a Chronic Illness, I share tips on how to create actual magic during the holidays, emphasizing togetherness and focusing in on what really matters. Here are my top five suggestions for a wonderful holiday that also keep you safe during the pandemic:

Rethink presents. When so much about this year has been so hard, we might have the urge to spoil our loved ones a bit extra for Christmas. But speaking of not being able to cash a check, this may be the year that spending less is the more prudent plan. Instead, aim for homemade gifts (more special for not being perfect), a $10-$20 limit and instructions to get creative, or do a Secret Santa where everyone only gets a present for one person. And if you are at high-risk for COVID-19, stick to online shopping or tap your favorite local shop for curbside pick-up.

Focus in. In a season known for exuberance and more-is-better, focusing on what is truly special can help protect your energy and actually crank up the magic. Instead of wrecking yourself decorating the entire house in one afternoon, focus on one room, spending only five or 10 minutes a day and carefully choose the decorations that mean the most to you. Slowing down and taking the time to enjoy the memories of why a particular ornament or Santa figure is so special builds that holiday glow. Making it a family affair and including your kids in the selection, talking about family heirlooms or that garland they made when they were three years old might even create a valued future Christmas tradition.

Reach out. With COVID-19 numbers rising out of control, all signs point to a very quiet holiday season for all of us. It’s a sacrifice that we have to make to make sure that when we gather in the future, all our loved ones will be present. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be together in other ways. Create some time most days to reach out to family, friends, neighbors, and even people you might not otherwise include on your holiday list. An e-card, phone call, or bringing back the early pandemic practice of Zoom cocktail hour, only with hot chocolate or mulled wine while dressed in Christmassy PJs (say), can help us all feel closer while staying apart.

Celebrate disasters. Some of my most treasured memories include holiday disasters, such as the fully decorated tree that kept falling over and the oven that stopped working in the middle of making Christmas dinner. Things that work out seldom become part of family legend, but the disasters are the stories that get told and retold over the years with much laughter. So why not really lean into that this year, when nothing is as it used to be? Try a new dish for your special dinner, perhaps from another culture, splurge on an unusual tree, play games while dressed in ugly holiday sweaters, watch cult Christmas movies, and in general push yourself to get as non-traditional, even weird, as possible.

Embrace “hygge.” The key to a magical holiday is, in my opinion, the Danish practice of “hygge.” Loosely translated as cozy, it involves togetherness, relaxation, usually candlelight, a few yummy treats (tip: buy them from the store), and no pressure to perform. In the words of my favorite holiday cartoon the Grinch, Christmas doesn’t come from a store and that joy we’re all chasing doesn’t, either. Making this holiday special is about the people you love, taking care of yourself and others, and some quiet celebration of what truly matters.

Wishing you and yours a wonderful holiday!

Lene  Andersen, MSW
Meet Our Writer
Lene Andersen, MSW

Lene Andersen is an author, health and disability advocate, and photographer living in Toronto. Lene (pronounced Lena) has lived with rheumatoid arthritis since she was four years old and uses her experience to help others with chronic illness. She has written several books, including Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain, and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain, as well as the award-winning blog, The Seated View. Lene serves on HealthCentral's Health Advocates Advisory Board, and is a Social Ambassador for the RAHealthCentral on Facebook page, facebook.com/rahealthcentral. She is also one of HealthCentral's Live Bold, Live Now heroes — watch her incredible journey of living with RA.