Record numbers of Americans are planning to travel over the Thanksgiving holiday this year. And many will also take to the roads and skies to travel over Christmas and New Year. Travel can take a lot out of you, especially if you’re dealing with a chronic illness — whether it’s depression, migraines, cancer, or back pain. In this article, Daniela Paolone, LMFT, who is both a psychotherapist and suffers from chronic illness herself, offers helpful tips for making holiday travel manageable when you have a chronic illness.
The holidays can be an exciting time of year, but they can also bring up a lot of stress if you suffer from chronic pain and physical or mental illness. As someone who has lived with health conditions for many years, I wanted to share different perspectives and ways to cope that might help you get through the holidays a bit easier.
Traveling with chronic pain and illness
Traveling to far destinations or staying local can have an impact on how you feel both physically and emotionally when living with an illness or health condition. If you are traveling at all this year, then there is an added layer of planning and self-care that you likely will need to think about, on top of all the typical travel preparations.
For instance, will you be getting on a plane? Will you be going on a long car ride to visit relatives? These types of travel situations will likely have an impact on your pain level and physical and emotional needs while traveling, so what steps can you take for greater comfort?
Anticipating what could go wrong while away from home can help solidify your preparations to make sure you have everything you might need in case of an emergency. Not all self-care items, supplies, or pain management aids are easy to get once you are on the road. So getting all of that in order and packed before travel is key. Doing this can lessen mental stress and promote greater peace of mind that you have everything thing you need to take care of yourself.
Bringing a pillow, heating pad, topical creams for pain and medications are just some of the items you may need while traveling. I know for me, sitting for long periods of time can be quite painful so I bring an acupressure mat, pain relief patches and pain medication as a way to manage body pain and headaches.
Furthermore, any type of travel can leave one feeling tired and worn out. It may take a few days to recuperate once you have arrived at your destination.
Tip: Thinking about your specific needs and symptoms, what do you need to make traveling more comfortable for you?
This information can help you figure out your sleeping arrangements too. So once you arrive at your destination, will you be staying with family or staying at a hotel? Have you clearly communicated with friends and relatives about your plans regarding where you will be staying? While it may be financially appealing to stay at a family member’s home, the sleeping arrangements may not be ideal for you. Will you have a comfortable bed in a guest room while visiting, or are you set up to sleep on a lumpy sofa in the living room?
Those with chronic pain and illness usually agree that they need a dedicated space with privacy and a comfortable bed for rest each night. Without that sleep environment established, it can really take a toll on pain symptoms, fatigue, and mood.
Tip: How can you create a comfortable sleeping environment while away from home?
Managing a change in routine
Now if you are staying local, then perhaps the physical impact of traveling will not be as intense. However, holidays change our normal daily routines. And as most people with chronic pain and illness know, when there is a change in day-to-day routine, the body can respond in ways that lead to flare-ups, pain episodes, illness, increased symptoms and more. It’s helpful to try to maintain as much of your routine as possible and be prepared to manage increased symptoms should they occur.
Tip: How will you manage changes in your routine? What do you need to do or bring to help manage increased symptoms?
Managing others’ expectations of you
Coming to terms with where you are at with your health can be difficult. Oftentimes that process happens first before being able to openly communicate your needs to others. However, once you feel comfortable talking about your conditions and health needs, you may feel more empowered in how the visit will play out.
Learning how best to travel and how your body responds to changing routines and environments may take time. I know that was the case for me. It took a bit of trial and error to learn about how my body was or was not able to tolerate certain situations. However, once armed with a greater understanding of my specific needs and symptoms, I was then able to use that information to communicate my needs and manage the expectations others had of me.
Clearly letting others know what they can expect from you while you are visiting them is a great way to manage their expectations of you so that there is no confusion, hurt feelings or misunderstandings.
For example, if you need to lay down for a mid-day nap, hopefully, they understand why, since you already had a conversation with them about this. If you need to go back to your hotel room to rest and lay down, again hopefully they understand that too and know that once you feel more rested, you will come back or update them on how you are doing.
Tip: How can you help others to understand your needs?
Accepting yourself and your illness can lead to happier holidays
All of these self-care ideas and ways to cope are part of the chronic illness journey. In the end, though, we each have unique health conditions and circumstances which will play a part in how we interact with others over the holiday season. Coming to terms with how our health is in this moment can help us to manage the expectations we place on ourselves while also managing others’ expectations of us. While this process can be a long and difficult one, it can also open us up to the possibilities of healing. Acknowledging where we are in this process can help us to find new ways of coping so that we can be more present and enjoy moments of connection with others during the holiday season.
Daniela Paolone is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who offers support to those impacted by chronic pain, chronic illness, anxiety, and medical trauma in her office and online. As a therapist with chronic health conditions, she combines her personal experiences and professional training into her work with clients. Her integrative approach, which includes mindfulness, Emotional Freedom Technique, education and health psychology, gives clients the opportunity to develop new ways of coping with chronic health conditions so that they can experience life with greater ease and comfort. Daniela also offers free presentations in person and online. To stay updated on her upcoming talks, you can sign up for her newsletter here. When you sign up, you will also receive a free guided meditation as thank you gift. Daniela can be found on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Instagram.