The holidays are a stressful time for anyone, but they can be especially stressful when you have an autoimmune disease. You may be on the hunt for the perfect gift, preparing elaborate meals, hosting extended family, and — oh no! — you completely forgot about that holiday party this weekend.
Trying to manage a disease in the thick of the hustle and bustle can be exhausting. Stress can have real effects on your physical and mental health and well-being. And researchers have found significant links between stress and autoimmune diseases that can make it all the more vital to keep your stress levels in check during this busy time.
But doing so on top of managing lupus, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis or other autoimmune diseases is easier said than done. We spoke with Allison Fine, a counselor and the founder and executive director of the Center for Chronic Illness, and Dr. Astrid Pujari, medical director for integrative medicine at Virginia Mason Medical Center, to get their recommendations on how best to manage stress this holiday season while also managing an autoimmune disease.
FIRST OF ALL, WHAT IS STRESS?
When you experience stress, your body goes into a fight or flight mode, releasing adrenaline and increasing blood pressure, Dr. Pujari explains. Over time, this takes a toll on your immune system and, as a result, your mental wellness.
“Our mind and our body are not two separate things,” Dr. Pujari says. “Our mind affects our body, and our body affects our mind.”
It’s important to understand how stress affects your disease, she notes. When you have an autoimmune disease, your immune system is already under stress. More external stressors — a growing holiday to-do list, upcoming travel, a house crowded with guests — could cause a flare-up in symptoms, fatigue and more. For instance, studies have shown patients with rheumatoid arthritis who experience stress had more pain and swollen joints over time. Similarly, the Lupus Foundation of America lists stress as a common environmental trigger for lupus flares.
“Stress is not just in your head,” Dr. Pujari explains. “It also has physiologic ramifications, and you can do something about those.”
Here’s what she and Fine suggest:
PLAN IN ADVANCE
Planning ahead is key for those living with autoimmune diseases, Fine says. This means thinking about what you can handle during the holidays and setting realistic expectations with yourself, like how much you can do, spend and accomplish. You can make lists of what Christmas presents to buy, or plan a white elephant gift exchange with your family instead of individual gifts to decrease your financial burden.
Deciding what you can do in advance can allow you to set boundaries and communicate with the people around you who try to plan things last minute. Try delegating responsibilities, and remember that it’s okay to say no when you don’t feel you can handle everything on your plate.
Travel and hosting are other great opportunities for advanced preparation. Pack extra medication if you’re traveling, or host a potluck instead of preparing a meal for everyone.
GET PLENTY OF REST
People with autoimmune diseases are more susceptible to disease, according to Dr. Pujari. For example, studies have shown that patients with type 1 diabetes who don’t get enough rest have higher insulin resistance, which can make it more difficult to manage their disease.
It’s important to take it easy to keep your disease in check, especially if you are traveling. Lack of sleep can exacerbate stress. Try packing earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones if you have a long flight or just want to get in a quick nap.
If you are changing time zones, heed common advice for battling jet lag: stay awake and get outside during the day, sleep at night, eat well and stick with your routines. Your doctor can also help you develop a travel plan that takes into account your medications.
Even if you’re hosting at your home or staying nearby, do your best to get to bed on time, eat well and exercise, Fine advises. “It’s important to treat oneself, but be mindful of your choices and the impact the holidays are having on the body.”
PRACTICE MINDFULNESS THROUGH MEDITATION
“Living in the present moment helps to decrease feelings of stress, anxiety and be more in tune with what is going on in our minds and bodies,” Fine says.
Practicing meditation and mindfulness — where you exercise your mind to achieve heightened self-awareness — can have real, positive effects on your health. Meditation can ease anxiety and mental stress, which improves physical health. Prioritizing time to focus on your mind and body can go a long way for your overall health.
“Meditation is not just in your head,” Dr. Pujari says. “It’s actually physically affecting you.”
Fine recommends using free meditation apps like Headspace or Calm to get started or to deepen your practice.
TAKE DEEP BREATHS
It might seem like a no-brainer, but deep breathing is a simple way to reduce the physical effects of stress on your body. And it’s something you can do anywhere.
Try taking 10 deep breaths when you’re feeling stressed, and you’ll see a big difference in how you feel physically, Dr. Pujari suggests. That’s enough to take your stress down a notch and help you bring your mind back to the present.
Why does it work? Deep breathing is scientifically proven to have effects on the immune system, heart, brain and digestion.
Practicing these ways to reduce stress while living with an autoimmune disease can help you well beyond the holiday season.
Just like taking medication or exercising, Dr. Pujari says you’ll see the best results in stress reduction if you stick with these techniques consistently all year round.
If you do, chances are that your body — and your mind — will be well prepared to embrace whatever the new year holds.
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