The holiday season is here once again, and if you live with a chronic health condition, that means dealing with some extra self-care challenges. Prepare for the holiday season with a few self-care strategies around details like food, medication, and even those inevitable, unsolicited comments about how you manage your health. No matter what it is that stresses you out during this time of year, it never hurts to have a holiday self-care plan in place.
Before figuring out that plan, first you need to know what it is exactly that stresses you out about the holiday season, says Carissa Hodgson, a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). Is it social anxiety at parties? Tension at family dinners? Feeling isolated while others are busy with friends and family? Grief about loved ones or traditions that are gone? Whatever it is, says Hodgson, “once you understand the triggers, it’s easier to make a plan for self-care.”
Everyone’s self-care plan will look different, of course, but here are a few strategies to consider adding to your arsenal.
Establish a Clear Travel Plan (Or Be Firm In Your Decision Not to Travel)
To travel or not to travel for the holidays—that is the question. Considering the COVID-19 complications associated with chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease, it’s understandable that you might not feel comfortable traveling as the pandemic continues.
That said, if you do choose to travel, you’ll want to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That means, in addition to getting vaccinated for COVID (if you aren’t already), washing your hands frequently, social distancing, and wearing a mask throughout your trip. Plus, whether you’re flying internationally or domestically, know that you may need to show proof of a negative COVID test (regardless of vaccination status), depending on which state or country you’re visiting. (Be sure to check the CDC’s website for the latest guidelines, as they’re updated very frequently.)
As for any medical supplies you might need to bring—such as a continuous glucose monitor (CGM), insulin pump, glucose meter, lancets, short-acting glucose, or even oral medications—pack as many backups as you can, says Amy Tenderich, a patient advocate and founder and editor of DiabetesMine. “Bring two or three of everything you need,” she urges. “You don’t want to spend your trip running around in a panic, calling pharmacies and doctors to get essential supplies, or begging people on a plane for food when you’re having a low blood sugar episode. It will ruin your trip—believe me, as someone who lives with diabetes, I’ve been there multiple times.”
While Tenderich recommends bringing most of your supplies in your carry-on bags so you never get separated from them, you can also keep some in your checked luggage. Just be mindful of any temperature changes that may happen below deck on a plane and how that might affect your medication or medical devices. (For example, if you use insulin, Tenderich suggests looking into temperature-controlled cases and pouches that can help keep it stable.)
No matter where you pack your medical supplies, be prepared for airport security workers to ask you a few questions about them. “Be proactive,” says Tenderich. “You should have some kind of doctor’s letter or medical ID that confirms you need these supplies.” And, if you wear a CGM or insulin pump to the airport, before you walk through the security sensors, tell the workers that you’re wearing a medical device so you can potentially save a few minutes of extra questioning or examination.
On the other hand, if you’re uncomfortable with getting on a plane, or you’re otherwise unable to travel and gather in person, it may be hard to break that news to certain loved ones. If you’re anticipating pushback, “take some time to prepare for these difficult conversations,” says Hodgson. “Perhaps write out your points, or practice the conversation with a friend. If you simply cannot handle the conflict, consider sending an email or letter with your decision. Also, if you have a hard time navigating others’ disappointments or disagreements, you may find it valuable to work through these issues with a therapist who can help you increase your assertiveness.” If you’re not interested in therapy or can’t afford it, you can also connect with a health coach who specializes in your needs, or find peer support in online communities (for example, our private One Drop Premium Members Facebook Group). Plus, some mental health directories, such as goodtherapy.org, allow you to search for sliding-scale therapists, who will adjust their hourly fees per person to make their services more affordable for everyone.
Of course, not gathering in person doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate in other ways. Try organizing a Zoom party with your loved ones and creating some games or fun questions that encourage everyone to share memories, photos, or what they’re thankful for.
Communicate Your Health Goals and Needs
Again, when navigating the holidays with a chronic health condition, being proactive is the name of the game.
For instance, if you’re going to a party, that means letting the host know about any dietary restrictions you have and offering to bring a dish that you know you’ll be able to eat. This not only makes things easier for both of you, but it might also help take some of the focus off of you and your health at the party when you can introduce your loved ones to a new recipe, says Hodgson. “Invite them to try what you’re eating, even if you’re abstaining from what they’re having,” adds One Drop coach, Rukiyyah Khan, a diabetes prevention specialist who’s certified in plant-based nutrition.
Regardless of how you choose to communicate these points, “it’s important to be firm and clear with your family and friends about your health and goals,” says Khan. If you feel you need to, she continues, “explain the depth of your desire to get healthy. Paint a picture for your loved ones as to why this matters, especially if your goals involve them (living well in old age, playing with grandkids, being able to care for yourself). Give examples of family members who are healthy and talk about how they inspire you.”
At the same time, though, embrace boundaries when you need to, says Tenderich. “You don’t need to explain the details of your health to everyone,” she notes. “Sure, some people see it as an educational moment to teach others about the intricacies of, say, carb counting, but I personally think you’re better off just enjoying your time at holiday parties. You don’t want to get all wrapped up in talking only about diabetes and have people start debating you. In those cases, just smile and say, ‘Thank you for concern—I’ve got it covered.’”
Ultimately, the goal is to get support from your loved ones, even if they don’t necessarily understand every detail of your experiences. “Ask for their support, but know that your health goals won’t always resonate with them,” says Khan. “Remind people that your food choices are about your lifestyle goals; they’re not a judgment on any family or friends.”
Be Prepared for Unsolicited Comments About Your Health
No matter how much you try to communicate openly and positively about your health, there’s still a chance you’ll encounter some uninvited or even negative commentary about everything from your lifestyle choices to your medication needs.
Whatever it is people might comment on, remind yourself that you cannot control others’ behaviors; you can only set boundaries that feel right for you, and hope that your loved ones are respectful of those boundaries, says One Drop coach, Julia Dugas, a registered dietitian/nutritionist (RDN) and certified personal trainer (CPT).
“If you know that your family members tend to make these types of comments, I suggest sending a text message beforehand—something along the lines of, ‘Hi everyone, I am so excited to see you all and catch up. I wanted to let you know that my body, food choices, etc. are not up for discussion this year. Looking forward to spending time with you all.’”
If that feels too bold, try reflecting on comments that could come up and how you might feel comfortable responding, suggests Dugas, adding that it may be helpful to write out some hypothetical statements ahead of time in a journal. “For example, you could write something like: ‘If someone makes a comment about my food choices, I will walk away, or change the subject, or say I’m working on X right now and would appreciate it if you didn’t comment.’”
Again, these awkward conversations could be an opportunity to teach people something new about your condition, or even how certain comments, including well-intentioned ones, can make you feel ashamed or judged. After all, says Hodgson, “people often have no idea that their words are laden with judgment or doing damage, and reflection can go a long way.”
However you choose to respond to these comments, “being prepared with responses before the event can put your mind at ease,” says Dugas. “Try saying your responses out loud before you go.”
Practice Mindful Eating to Avoid Overeating
Food is, of course, a huge part of the holiday season. Between the delicious treats you’ll find on every serving platter and the social anxiety you might feel attending a big party, it can be easy to overeat (or over-drink) at holiday events.
To avoid overdoing it, first, know that skipping meals or snacks to “save calories” ahead of time is never a good idea, says Dugas. “Walking into a holiday gathering feeling hangry is setting yourself up for failure,” she explains. “Being well-nourished before walking into the situation will give you so much more control over your food choices and eating habits, and you’ll be much less likely to eat past the point of fullness or binge. You’ll also enjoy yourself more when you’re not fixated on food and feeling ravenously hungry.”
As you nosh at your holiday parties, Khan recommends practicing mindful eating, or “being present with your meal as you consume it,” she explains. “It’s about recognizing the taste sensations in your mouth, chewing fully, swallowing, and then resting before taking your next bite.”
In practice, this might mean scanning all of your food options before loading up your plate, and creating a mini strategic plan of what you’ll eat (as opposed to just mindlessly grabbing a little of everything available), says One Drop coach, Melinda Washington, RDN, certified diabetes care and education specialist (CDCES). “Decide what foods you truly look forward to eating, and skip the ones you aren’t really interested in,” she suggests. “For instance, it may be a rare treat to eat Auntie Jane’s mac and cheese or green bean casserole, but you might be less excited about the dinner rolls. Make a plan to skip the rolls so you can enjoy those coveted family delicacies.”
Once you know what you want, fix yourself a moderate portion that matches your hunger, and, as you’re eating, observe how full you feel with each bite, says Khan. “Once you’re at the point of satisfaction, but not stuffed, slide the plate away or wrap it for later,” she explains.
If you live with diabetes, consider combining this approach of mindful eating with the diabetes plate method to avoid spiking your blood sugar: Divide your plate into three quadrants, and reserve 50% for non-starchy veggies, 25% for protein, and the last 25% for carbs. (Here are more strategies for managing your blood sugar.)
Additionally, remember to check your blood sugar regularly and, if you use insulin, adjust your doses as needed throughout the holiday season. This will obviously vary from person to person, but generally speaking, Khan recommends, at minimum, checking your fasting blood sugar in the mornings, before meals (especially if you’re dosing insulin), and after meals, particularly if you’re feeling symptoms of high or low blood sugar. “Add extra checks if you’re doing something active, drinking alcohol, or eating foods that are more likely to cause large blood sugar changes (such as sweets),” she adds.
Don’t Forget to Stay Active
Exercise isn’t exactly top of mind for most people during the holiday season, but that doesn’t make it any less important. Still, most of us tend to be too busy during this time to maintain a proper workout routine—which means you have to get a little creative with how you prioritize movement.
If you’re visiting family and friends, try to look for events that organically include more activity, suggests Khan. Think: corn mazes, botanical gardens, aquariums, zoos, trampoline parks, ice skating—any family-friendly activity that keeps you moving most of the day.
As for the day of a big holiday meal, encourage games before dinner or take a walk as a family after you’re done eating, says Khan. “Remaining active after meals for at least 15 minutes can have a significant impact on blood sugars,” adds Washington. Even if you have to stay inside because of the weather, household chores like sweeping and vacuuming can still count as exercise (especially if you throw on some music and make it a family dance party). “You may even want to do a holiday-themed scavenger hunt throughout the house to find fun objects that hold memories,” suggests Khan.
Know What Helps You Relax and De-Stress
Considering stress can have a negative impact on everything from blood sugar and blood pressure to your sleep schedule and eating habits, it’s worth devising a plan for how you can handle these emotions and (hopefully) avoid any effects they might have on your health.
When you're having trouble regulating the way you respond to these emotions, try making a list of activities that help you cope, suggests Hodgson. “This may include mindfulness activities, specific friends or family who you can talk to, creative expression you enjoy, or a playlist of music,” she explains. “If you have a therapist, you may also want to consider scheduling sessions throughout the holiday season ahead of time to make sure you have regular appointments, or perhaps increase the amount of sessions for extra support.”
Plus, don’t forget that, even if you feel nothing but joy and fulfillment throughout the holidays, you’ll probably still feel drained from all the extra socializing, so you’re bound to find value in intentional self-care regardless. As Hodgson says: “We all need to make time for rest.”
Want more tips for self-care during the holiday season? Become a One Drop Premium member to get one-on-one guidance from our coaches and receive the latest issue of our magazine, Life Without Limits, for more insights.
This article has been clinically reviewed by Jamillah Hoy-Rosas, MPH, RDN, CDCES, and VP of clinical operations and program design at One Drop, and Dr. Harpreet Nagra, PhD, VP, behavior science and advanced technologies at One Drop.