How to Cope with Holiday Blues When Your Health is Poor

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At this time of year, the media is full of stories about families traveling to be together and friends meeting. But for many of us, the holidays are challenging. Due to chronic illnesses (including chronic pain) we wish to participate in seasonal celebrations, but our ability to do so is limited. That can be painful.

It is for me. As I say in my book How to get sick, one of the hardest pills I had to swallow when I became chronically ill, was that suddenly the activities that had brought me the most joy were the very activities that were now making my symptoms worse. Visiting people at holiday meetings is one of these activities.

When my son and family come to share gifts and food, I’m happy to see everyone. I always start with an energy boost, exactly the opposite of what I should do if I want to be with everyone longer. (I think this outburst of sociability is due to how much time I spend alone.)

I wrote in my last article about my battery only “charging” 25 percent overnight. You’d think that with that limited energy, I would have learned by now the importance of putting yourself on the pace. But sometimes I’m so excited to see everyone the pace goes out the window. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long before I’m living on borrowed energy in the form of adrenaline.

Getting by on adrenaline means I’m about to have a ‘crash’. That means I have to excuse myself and go to the bedroom. It’s at this point, sadness and the blues hit. From the correspondence I receive, I know my experience will be shared by others struggling with their health.

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What I would like to offer are four things that can help when sadness feels overwhelming—whether it’s because you have to leave a meeting or because you can’t attend at all.

1. Don’t blame yourself.

It is not uncommon for those of us who suffer from a chronic illness to feel that it is our fault that we cannot gather with others. I hear all the time from people who are convinced that their health problems are due to moral failure or a flaw of character on their part.

Let me get this straight: It is not your fault that you are sick or in pain. We are in bodies, and bodies get sick and hurt. 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 putting down a heavy burden. The reward was that it allowed me to treat myself with compassion. Self-blame and self-compassion are incompatible. I hope you work on replacing the former with the latter.

2. Cultivate self-compassion.

The word “compassion” has become so commonplace that I think it has often lost its meaning. Here’s how to bring it to life.

Choose appropriate sentences your particular situation and repeat them softly or softly to yourself: “It was so hard to leave the meeting just as the conversation was getting good”; “I’m sad to be alone in the bedroom.” When you do this, let yourself know it’s you Care about your suffering and that is comforting and healing.

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If it brings tears to your eyes, that’s okay. They are 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 takes practice, so don’t get discouraged if it feels wrong at first. Stay tuned and it will be real.

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Practice muditathink of the good times others are having when you’re not there and see if you can be happy for them.

If you feel jealous instead, don’t blame yourself. Just acknowledge with compassion that this is what you are feeling, and then try mudita again. When I practice this, I imagine the smiling faces of my loved ones and the sound of their laughter. After some time I can’t help but be happy for her. Often times I even start cheering myself up like everyone is having a good time to the me.

4. Practice toggle

This is my go-to practice for relieving the sadness that can come over me during the holidays. tonglen is a compassion practice from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It’s counterintuitive which is why the Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön says that toggle reverses the logic of the ego.

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

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Here’s how I use it toggle when I’m feeling overwhelmed by sadness and blues during the holiday season. I breathe the sadness and pain of all those who are unable to be with family and close friends during the holidays. Then I breathe out any kindness and compassion I have to give them.

As I do this, I am aware that I am breathing in my own sadness and pain, and that I am also sending those feelings out to myself as I breathe out kindness and compassion for them. That’s why I like to call toggle a two-for-one compassion practice – we not only cultivate kindness and compassion for others, we cultivate it for ourselves.

Practice toggle helps ease the blues because it makes us feel a deep connection with others who, like us, cannot fully participate in holiday celebrations. When it’s too hard to breathe in other people’s sadness and pain, just remember them and think of them with kindness and compassion.

My best for everyone this season.

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