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The Most Wonderful Time of the Year! Or Is It?

How stroke survivors can cope with the challenges of the holidays.

Source: fincayra0204/Pixabay

The holidays are supposed to be a time to celebrate, but for many people, it is a time of stress, anxiety, disappointment, or loneliness. Stroke survivors face many challenges under optimal conditions, but the holiday season can exacerbate stressors to a level that may seem unbearable.

Identifying Challenges

Physical limitations: You may be left with physical limitations that negatively impact the holidays. These limitations may make it difficult to venture out for gifts, decorations, or food. Physical limitations may also interfere with your ability to wrap gifts, prepare meals, or put up decorations. Most people take being able to complete these tasks for granted, but struggling to complete them can lead to anger, frustration, guilt, and feelings of worthlessness. Loneliness and social isolation become a reality for stroke survivors even more during the holidays.

Physical limitations may also affect your ability to host or attend social gatherings. Traveling may be difficult, and locations may not be accessible or accommodate your limitations.

Fatigue: The holidays are physically and mentally demanding for everyone, but as a stroke survivor, you may battle chronic daily fatigue. By adding the activities and expectations the holidays place on you during this time, it can lead to exhaustion and feelings of being overwhelmed with thoughts like, “I just can’t do this.” Others don’t always understand how debilitating the fatigue is post-stroke and can be judgemental when you’ve reached your limit. I get so frustrated at times because there are so many things I want to do but just don’t have the energy or drive to do so.

Reflection: Memories are a wonderful gift; however, they can also be painful. Looking back at years gone by can cause feelings of sadness and grief. Memories of decorating the house, baking, preparing a feast, hosting parties, and other activities that are now challenging or impossible can be overwhelming and filled with nostalgia.

Financial: Post-stroke, you may experience financial challenges because of loss or change of career. Although support services are available, not everyone is eligible to receive these funds. So how can you deal with the expectations of the holiday season?

Do you feel obliged to buy gifts for loved ones despite the fact you can’t afford them? Do you overextend yourself financially or live with the guilt of not purchasing gifts for those you love? Instead of buying “things,” you could reach out to loved ones, telling them how much they are treasured. Let them know you care about them and reminisce, share a hug, or a laugh as your gift.

Cognitive challenges: There are many things to remember, organize, and attend to during the holidays, and most people have difficulty balancing it all. Add a brain injury into the mix, which affects memory, comprehension, organization, multitasking, decision-making, focus, and concentration, and this amplifies the stress.

Source: AaronAmat/istock

Festive overload: You may experience sensory overload when faced with too much information. If you could envision a worst-case scenario for sensory overload, this is it. Stores bustle with shoppers, brightly lit decorations, festive music blaring, rows of inventory, and signs everywhere advertising sales.

Even locating a parking spot and then trying to exit can be a nightmare. You leave exhausted, anxious, panicked, or have a desire to just stay home and avoid it all.

Strategies for Coping

Now that I’ve made the holiday season seem like a horror show, let’s look at some strategies to cope and perhaps make the holidays even enjoyable.

  • Stick to a budget. Decide how much money you can afford to spend. Don’t riddle yourself with guilt if you are unable to purchase gifts for everyone on your list. If you have a number of people to buy for, perhaps suggest drawing names. You probably aren’t the only one feeling financial pressure this year.
  • Spread gift purchases over the year. This allows you to diffuse the cost. It may help you to avoid stores during the holiday season. Shop at smaller, less overwhelming stores or take advantage of online shopping.
  • Acknowledge your feelings. You can’t force yourself to be happy. It’s perfectly fine to feel sadness, grief, or anxiety.
  • Reach out. Find community social events that interest you. Search for online support groups or virtual events as a source of companionship. Talk with a friend or family member about your struggles.
  • Be realistic. Resist putting pressure on yourself. Recognize your limitations when you are feeling overwhelmed. Everything doesn’t have to be perfect. Discover new ways to celebrate—sharing pictures, emails, videos.
  • Share hosting responsibilities. Consider potluck dinners. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help.
  • Have a plan. Write down the tasks you want to accomplish. Prioritize them and plan ahead. This helps avoid the last-minute scramble.
  • Drop the guilt.
  • Say "no." Recognize when you’ve reached your limit, and don’t be afraid to admit you’ve had enough. Friends and family need to understand you may not be able to participate in every activity.
  • Take a break. Find things that help reduce stress and restore inner calm.
  • Seek professional help if required. Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself unable to cope. Talk to your health care provider.

Use these strategies to find peace and joy during the holidays. Suzanne and I wish each of you a wonderful holiday season filled with simple pleasures and gratitude.

More from Angie Collins-Burke, RN, and Suzanne Cronkwright
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