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Invisible Disabilities–Why the Holidays Do Us In

Today I was driving home from a chiropractic appointment, one I usually ride my bike to, but we’re having a “Pineapple Express” here in western Washington and it’s blowing and dumping rain. We have one week until Christmas, and I feel like I went over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Why?

The holidays can leave us all feeling exhausted, overextended, unfulfilled, broke, and broken. When you have a hidden disability, the holidays can be unmanageable. Why do they hit us so much harder than the physically unchallenged?

I thought about that throughout the day and came up with quite a few reasons why the holidays take a bigger toll on us.

  1. Our routines are disrupted.

We are creatures of habit, managing our conditions with reliable routines to keep us functioning as highly as we can. When our routines are interrupted with holiday parties and travel, our whole self-care regimen goes out the window. I’ve had several weeks with evening activities more than 2 nights in a row. I take great pains to never schedule 2 nights back-to-back. Going out 3 nights in a row is incredibly draining.

  1. The routines of our care providers are disrupted.

My chiro appointment today was only one week after my last adjustment. I normally go 2 weeks between adjustments, but between my schedule and my chiropractor’s, we could not work out an appointment during the next 2 weeks because of his holiday plans and mine. I had to choose between an extra adjustment or going 3 weeks before my next one. I erred on the side of caution.

  1. Our diets are blown to smithereens.

Holiday treats are everywhere. Sugar is the biggest culprit, but I’ve been to parties where I ate healthy and still suffered from a lack of protein at dinner time. When you have allergies, sensitivities, or diet-related illnesses, a buffet table can be a minefield. I’ve had much better luck in recent years by eating a light meal at home before I leave, and only having snacks and dessert at the party. Squirreling a safe protein bar in your purse or pocket is also a good plan.

When your diet is disrupted, your health and mental state are affected. I have more pain when I carry extra weight on my body. A higher-sugar, lower-protein trend makes me short-tempered and cranky, the very epitome of “hangry.”

  1. Even things that are part of our routines are distorted.

I went to pick up a package at the UPS Store where I have my mailbox today, and the line was insane. Normally, I might stand behind one person in line. This time of year, I stand up to 15 minutes waiting for service (while 10 Amazon returns get processed in the express line—I wonder what Amazon is paying for that). Typical people might have some back pain standing that long, especially older people. I feel like someone is ramming a hot poker down my spinal column. I popped a pain pill in line today and it didn’t kick in for half an hour. Tomorrow I’ll bring my cane that folds into a tripod stool and sit down in the times the line isn’t advancing. People will stare. I’ll remember the hot poker and not care.

This is just one of many normal activities that become harder over the holidays. Has anyone gone grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s this week?

  1. Our work schedules may be disrupted.

In my industry (environmental consulting), I work with engineers, managers, and high-level regulatory personnel. These people often take off the entire two weeks surrounding Christmas and New Year’s Day. I’m here at work and there’s nothing to do and no one to send it to. The few projects that continue moving along are the hot potatoes—stressful and more difficult, and the people I send them to for review are cranky because they have to be at work too. This would be equally true for anyone, disabled or not, but it’s a contributing stressor.

  1. All this may lead to sleep disruption.

Most of us treasure good sleep like the rare delicacy it is. Adherence to routine makes getting to sleep, and staying asleep, easier. Disruption and stress turn on our “monkey brain” and keep us awake. Less sleep means more pain and less control over illnesses.

  1. It’s cold and flu season, and many of us are more vulnerable.

One of my friends is a school bus driver, so I’m constantly exposed to the elementary-school germ pool even though I rarely spend time with children. People with autoimmune disorders have the added stress of external challenges to their immune systems, especially with holiday crowds. We may get sicker and stay that way longer. For me, having broken every rib on my left side, and having 3 spinal fractures that left behind extensive nerve damage,  coughing is more uncomfortable and throwing up is pure agony.

What can we do? Be kind to ourselves.

We want to make it to all the gatherings. We want to do our part—wear the special outfits, bring homemade treats, help with the setup and cleanup.

It’s okay to go just long enough to feel you took part and then go home. It’s okay to skip the theme outfit if it’s hard to wear, and come as you are, within normal limits of appropriate dress and hygiene. It’s okay to bring something store-bought for the pot luck, especially if you’re so tired that your efforts to cook would not be your best. It’s okay to eat before the party and just snack while you’re there, to make sure you get the basic nutrition you need. It’s okay not to help with dishes. Other people will step up who are better equipped to do so. It’s okay to consume less or no alcohol if it affects you badly.

Be kind to others.

You’re not alone—keep an eye out for people who feel like you do. Band together for support. I was at a party once, the year after my crash, and a guest who was in remission from cancer noticed the Fentanyl patch poking out from my dress’s deep neckline. She said, “You look like you’re ready to go, hon, and it’s okay,” and she walked me out. She helped me learn how to excuse myself gracefully. If you’re crushing it with self-care, show others the way.

Did I miss a stressor? Tell me about it in the comments section. And Happy, Sane, Healthy Holidays!

Invisible Disabilities–Why the Holidays Do Us In

Kristin Noreen

Kristin Noreen lives in Bellingham, Washington with two cats and her vintage touring bicycle, Silver. Her triple passions are animal rescue, long-distance bike touring, and writing. Her book, On Silver Wings: A Life Reconstructed, is about reinventing her life following a catastrophic injury.

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APA Reference
, . (2019). Invisible Disabilities–Why the Holidays Do Us In. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 19 Dec 2019
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