Chronic illness can make any time of year difficult. Managing the holidays with chronic pain, multiple symptoms, and potential triggers everywhere can be difficult for even the most experienced spoonie.
The days after the holidays end, though? That can be even more stressful than the festive weeks at the year’s end.
Why do so many of us experience a crash after the winter holidays? Why is January such a difficult month for so many of us with chronic illness or disabilities?
The answer is multifaceted – and every facet kind of sucks.
Chronic Illness Boom and Bust
Those of us who suffer from chronic illness know the cycle of boom and bust all too well.
We often have to go through the motions of life without accomplishing as much as we would like to. So, when we have the energy – or just the determinations, sometimes – we push hard to make good days happen.
Sometimes this looks like a productive day cooking for the holiday meals or cleaning the entire house for guests. Other times, it looks like a fun-filled day doing festive things with the family. Regardless, though, there is one thing these “boom” days all have in common.
They are inevitably followed by a “bust” day.
These crash days may be flare days. Or, they could just be days of mental or physical exhaustion. Either way, they are the unavoidable result of pushing our bodies harder than they are comfortable being pushed with chronic illness.
The holiday season is full of important days. Maybe they are busy days full of chores or exciting days full of activities. No matter what, though, they will be boom days. Unfortunately, we may not have the free time during December that we have the rest of the year to “bust” and recover from those busy days.
What happens when people with chronic illness spend too much time booming and not enough time allowing themselves to bust? We end up with a January that looks like a whole month of bust days.
Unfortunately, that is a lesson most of us have learned the hard way.
Physical and Emotional Exhaustion
Even if you do not push yourself too hard during the holiday season, you will undoubtedly still suffer some post-holiday exhaustion.
For me, this is a two-part problem.
First, I am physically exhausted. The holidays mean cooking for and serving guests that we host in our homes. It means traveling to see other family members and friends. It means buying and wrapping gifts and so much more.
By the time January comes around, I am physically worn out and ready for a four-week nap.
Then, there is the fact that the holidays are a highly social time. I am an introvert by nature anyway. But coupled with my chronic illness and the restrictions it places on my energy, I feel entirely drained after the holidays are finally over.
It is a bittersweet feeling because I love the holidays. But these days, I feel like I need eleven months of rest just to prepare myself for them again.
Depression or lingering sadness after the holidays is common. More than 60% of people report feeling this sadness once the “most wonderful time of the year” is over.
There are many reasons for this. During the holiday season, we see more of our loved ones. We send and receive gifts. We make exciting purchases, do fun and festive activities, and enjoy more music than at any other time. It is difficult to go anywhere or turn on a television, radio, or computer without seeing reminders of the fun days ahead.
Once all that is over for the year, though, things can seem starkly bare. The decorations come down. The lights go out. The family goes home. Things go quickly back to a “normal” that feels boring and sad by comparison.
Coupling this with the struggles of chronic illness can be overwhelming. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns are common with disability. The post-holiday slump that many people experience is like adding fuel to an already dangerous fire.
Finding things to look forward to in the new year can help with this. For many people, though, January is devoid of much celebration – and can be filled instead with expectations of personal growth, change, and renewal. If you find yourself unable to meet these abstract goals for the month, you can begin the new year feeling behind and stressed in a way that does nothing to improve your mental health.
Whether you celebrate the holidays by spending a lot of money on gifts or not, the month of December can be very expensive. Everyone likes to indulge a little around the holidays, and most of us have people to purchase or make gifts for. As a result, most of us also end up feeling the pinch in our pockets and purses after the holidays end.
That tight squeeze on our finances can be amplified by the everyday expenses of having a chronic illness. For many families with one or more disabled or chronically ill members, January can be an extremely difficult month financially. It is just one more reason many of those same families feel such a letdown from the abundance of the holidays.
Holiday Diet and Weight Gain
Speaking of abundance and indulgence, the holiday diet is one that was made for both.
Some people like to have a few festive drinks around this time of year. Others love the rich, decadent meals that often land on our dinner tables between Thanksgiving and the dawn of the New Year. Still others – myself included – are a little too fond of sugary snacks and tasty treats served at dessert.
All of that exquisite food at once can really put our bodies in a bad spot.
Everyone should feel free to loosen their belts a little bit during the holidays. Having a drink or a treat now and then is not likely to do you any great harm. Losing track of your dietary restrictions or overindulging to the point of illness or bodily upset, though?
That is a very different story.
One year when I was young, my mother told me I could have as much of the homemade chocolate she made for the holiday as I wanted. Her thought was that I would eventually tire of it and would stop asking if she just gave me no restrictions.
What actually happened? I ate every piece of chocolate in the large, resealable container – and I was violently sick afterward.
While this is the story of a foolish child, it could just as easily be the story of any of us during the holidays. The poor diets we celebrate with would be fine one day in the year, but an entire season of celebratory meals makes for plenty of pushback from one’s body!
What’s more, holiday diets often lead to rapid weight gain. This is not necessarily harmful itself, but coupled with the many other factors mentioned here can cause health concerns – and even worse mental health issues.
The Bleak Midwinter
The holiday season is beautiful. The various holidays celebrated during November and December are filled with lights, glistening decorations, bright colors, and a sparkle of magic.
The days that follow in January, though? Gross.
I obviously cannot speak on behalf of the entire world or even a large portion of the general population. I realize that many of you are not from North America and will probably experience January differently than we often do.
Here, though, January is cold, wet, and dark.
There are no celebrations. There is no holiday magic. For those of us with chronic illness, there is only the discomfort of the cold and the risk of the rain and snow.
It is no wonder people call this time of year “the bleak midwinter”. When you have a chronic illness, the midpoint might as well be the entire season.
Getting Through It: Taking Time for Mental Health
We have a lot of things working against us in the weeks that follow the winter holidays. Even if you do not celebrate anything in December, you do likely experience the crash that happens afterward.
It is okay to take some time to take care of yourself during this time of year. Self-care is health care – and it is normal and acceptable to prioritize it during the post-holiday weeks.
Some ideas for self-care in January include:
- Getting more rest.
- Treating your body kindly by eating balanced, healthy meals.
- Drinking more water and less sugary, caffeinated, or alcoholic drinks.
- Getting gentle exercise or going for outdoor walks if possible.
- Turning quick showers into slow, leisurely baths.
- Watching your favorite movies, shows, or YouTube videos
- Connecting with loved ones and planning get-togethers to combat the crash.
- Finding a fun new hobby or picking an old one up again.
Whatever you choose to do, do it without apologizing for taking care of yourself.
The holidays are great, but they’re also hard. January can be even harder. Give yourself grace. Take care of your mental health and that of those you love when the holidays end.
Do that and you will remember this January so much more fondly than those that have come before it.