If you live with chronic illness, the holidays might not feel like such a joyous occasion to look forward to, but rather an event you dread. While everyone reunites, celebrates, and share traditions with family and friends. A chronic illness can make you feel like you need to put on a healthy façade, but it doesn't have to be that way.

Surviving the holidays when you're chronically ill includes:

  • Doing your holiday shopping online, 
  • Not worrying about expensive gifts, 
  • Acknowledging and embracing your limits,
  • Communicating your needs to your loved ones, and 
  • Making a solid holiday plan. 

In this article we put theory into practice and show you HOW to get this right. We know that no two people with a chronic illness are the same. So while some of these tips may apply more to you than others – all of them can help you prevent some of the pain and stress you endure during this overwhelming time.

Do Your Holiday Shopping Online

If you haven't swapped mall shopping for online shopping yet – it's time! I don't know how many times I had severe flares from finding all my gifts by walking from store to store.

It just wasn't worth it. So when online shopping was popularised – my life changed instantly for three reasons:

  • I can keep my energy/spoons for things I value more, like being with my friends and family.
  • It forces me to know what I want to get everyone before I shop, so I half the amount of time browsing aimlessly.
  • I benefit from numerous online deals that are often better (especially over Black Friday), so I save money.

Please, do yourself a favour and stop driving to various locations, scouring the stores for the same gift that 25 other people are probably looking for too, and then waiting in ghastly long lines before you can leave.


It's an entire process that can easily wear you down, particularly if your chronic illness inhibits mobility or is connected to social anxiety. You will undoubtedly find the same products online that you would see in store for a fraction of the hassle.

The only thing you need to remember to do is forward-plan. When the holiday season is involved, particularly Christmas, many companies will experience shipping delays due to high demands.

Make sure you give yourself ample time to have your gift purchased and delivered before the holiday hits rather than hopping on your laptop the week before. If you can have it, all gift wrapped – even better.

Don't Worry About Expensive Gifts   

I love gift giving ­– it's one of my favourite things about the holidays. I love the idea of spoiling everyone I love and showing them I care. After all, it's a time to think of others.

But I also know that it's one of the most stressful elements of the holiday season when you start to consider your financial situation.

Your daily medical costs, coupled with potential challenges at work, make it so much harder to splurge on "nice-to-have" when you have a chronic illness.

In these moments, remind yourself that health is your top priority. So if you're struggling to pay for gifts because of these obstacles – know that physical objects aren't the only way to show someone you care for and appreciate them.

Thought, consideration and care can go just as far – they are still considered very special gifts.  

If you're looking for ideas, here are some of my favourites:

  • Invite them to an experience that is affordable. For example: 
  • The museum,
  • A drive-in movie,
  • A picnic in the park, or
  • Keep it festive and go to a Christmas market together.
  • Craft something yourself if you're creative. You could make:
  • DIY bath products,
  • Ceramics
  • Jewellery
  • Anything sewed/knitted or crocheted,
  • A music playlist,
  • A hard drive with movies,
  • A collection of all your favourite recipes, or
  • A photobook with all your shared memories.
  • Offer your time. It's one of the most precious things when you have a chronic illness. And people
    who love know you will know this is the biggest gift of all. 
  • Invite your loved ones over for dinner,
  • Offer to babysit or look after your niece/nephew/godchildren,
  • Be available for important sporting events, recitals or events in the family.
  • Help them with something you're good at doing. If you're a good cook – invite them over to cook together! Or if you're a great gardener ­– offer up your green fingers, some gardening tips, or even some plants you feel are worth gifting.

Last Christmas, I painted my coffee-loving sister a set of espresso cups with skylines of the cities she's lived in, or we've visited together, and I can keep making more over time.

For my godchildren, I've had so much fun making DIY Christmas ornaments together and seeing them grow up each year.

One thing I can say about gifting your time in these ways – you're allowing yourself the chance to make more memories. And no physical gift will ever compare in value to that.

Acknowledge and Embrace Your Limits

It can be a hard pill to swallow at first, but acknowledging your limits is one of the few things that will save your butt this festive season.

It's damn hard, I know. I have a habit of neglecting my limits too. The more A-type you are – the more you'll have to fight your urge to strive for an unrealistically perfect outcome in everything you do.

I can proudly say I'm working on this issue, and I've seen that it is possible if you apply yourself.  

The holidays are stressful enough as is. You probably have to worry about buying presents, socialising, cooking, and various other stressors that are a lot for anyone – never mind someone with a chronic illness.

The sooner you acknowledge what is best for your health around the holidays, the better prepared you will be to make the necessary changes that will allow you to join in the holiday fun rather than sitting on the sideline.

It's all well and fine – but the heck do you define what is best for you? A holiday plan goes a long way, and I'm going to show you how to put one together further down. Trust me; it's a lifesaver!  

And, of course, the critical element to this step is acceptance. Having a chronic illness is not within your control. You will immediately dampen your holiday experiences if you focus on any sense of shame or burden you associate with your condition.

That's another hum-dinger because there is a fine line between accepting DEFEAT and accepting CHANGE.  

This is not a topic you can cover quickly in an article because it applies to every aspect of your life. So if you're battling with acceptance, then you need to sign up for our 7 Day FREE programme.

Our programme will walk you through the critical aspects of learning to live happily alongside your chronic illness without it getting the better of you.

Every day you'll have numerous personalised activities to work through and a free medical binder you can use to document your progress.

There are no catches – all we need is your email address, and you're good to go! Sign up here: 7 Days to Happiness Chronic Illness Programme  

Communicate Your Needs To Your Loved Ones

What might pose even more of a challenge than accepting your limits is detailing them to others. However, communicating your needs around the holidays is the best way to help alleviate stress and the burden of this season.

You don't necessarily have to walk your family and friends through every step of your holiday plan or discuss every detail of your chronic illness, but at least making them aware of your situation can help exponentially.

The more situations you can apply your boundaries to clearly – the better off you'll be.

Here's an activity you can do to help you communicate the most important things to your loved ones. All you need to do is complete the sentences and then share your thoughts.  

  • I know you're disappointed that I can't ......, but my health is my priority, and I need to make sure I am as well as possible.

  • I am happy to do ..... now, but then I cannot do ..... later.

  • I can only manage ..... per week. We need to establish the most important things to do together.

  • I need to be in bed by ..... if we want to do .....  in the morning.

  • I am happy to host guests, but you need to know I cannot (cook/clean-up / entertain all night).

The important people in your life are more likely to be compassionate, empathetic, and understanding when they have the necessary information regarding your situation. But communicating everything in advance is the key to smooth sailing.

If you need a little help expressing how you feel, you should let them read this article: How Do You Care For Someone With a Chronic Illness?

And if you're comfortable, extend this to the workspace. Explain to your boss or superiors that this time of year is especially difficult for you due to your chronic illness and the holidays.

More often than not, they will work with you to make compromises and accommodations that will help remove the significant stress of an overwhelming workload from the equation.

Depending on your chronic illness, they might even be legally required to help you, and it is vital to know if this pertains to you.

Make a Holiday Plan

This is a common suggestion for individuals living with chronic illness. There's always a lot to do around the holidays, particularly major ones like Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Creating a holiday plan can help you feel confident that you are prepared for the holiday chaos. This might reduce any overwhelming stress you typically have this time of real, and it can help you set your boundaries in a firm, concrete manner that will ensure you don't push your body to the brink no matter what.

Limit and Prioritise Social Events

For the most part, the holiday season is predictable, and you know what family, friends, and work events occur around this time. Try to set a number for how many gatherings you'll go to and which ones rank highest (for example. Christmas dinner with the family will take priority over a holiday work party).

If an event comes up that doesn't align with your plan, kindly decline. It's easy to want to do everything and go everywhere, but this is also a fast-track to overworking your body, making those top priority events harder to enjoy.

Using phrases like:

  • I can't do that for you now.
  • Not at this time.
  • I've decided not to.
Or even the one word, "NO". It is good enough.

Plan your Downtime

When the holidays come around, it can feel like everything moves a mile a minute with no time to slow down. This is why it is crucial to plan downtime so you know no matter what, you have a specific date or daily time where you can unwind and let your body and mind relax.

Try and schedule full recovery days between your events to get the best out of the days you're active.

Cooking Expectations

For Christmas, it's cookies; for Thanksgiving, it's turkey; for the Fourth of July, it's barbecue dishes. No matter the time of year, there is always a classic dish connected to every holiday, and if you're going to events, it's often expected that you bring something.

As someone who is chronically ill, it's best to curb cooking expectations. Try make one or two kinds of Christmas cookies rather than five. Or make a non-perishable dish in bulk that you can bring to every event. That way, you only have to set aside time to make it once, and you're done.

Here's a couple of tips to help you out: 12 Energy-Saving Cooking Tips When You Are Chronically Ill

Event Durations

In addition to going to too many holiday events, another way you can quickly push your body and mind to their limits is by staying there for the entire duration. Most holiday parties and gatherings have a start time and no end time.

  • Arrive early and leave when the party is buzzing, if you like being there when fewer people are around to drain your energy. That way, you've spent quality time at the party but don't have to see it to the end.
  • Skip the early stages of the event and arrive when plenty is going on if you love the buzz. Stay for the most important part of an event, such as dinner and dessert, and leave once they are over.
  • Keep a time rule if you plan to stay for two hours – set your timer. That way, when the buzzer goes off, you can make a conscientious effort to leave before you get too tired.
  • Drive in two cars. If you don't want to stay as long as everyone – you have no obligation to do that when you take your own ride. It's a much easier way to go to group events.

Set Rules on Hosting

The most stressful and tiring elements of the holidays are combined when deciding to host an event. Not only do you have to plan everything about it in terms of when and where it will occur and who is invited, but you're also responsible for cooking, cleaning, and being the social butterfly.

Hosting holiday parties is often too much for someone with chronic illnesses. I've spent days, actually weeks, recovering from hosting big events.

You end up spending the majority of your time pushing yourself to your limits trying to make everything perfect. And once everyone arrives, you're too stressed or worn out to enjoy the experience.

You really need to refrain from hosting, or if you're like me, get a co-host to help you out and keep gatherings small.

Here are some tips:

  • Set a time limit for the event. E.g. 5 – 8 pm for Thanksgiving dinner, 2 – 4 pm for Christmas cookies and coffee.
  • Invite a handful of guests. Keep it to immediate family or a small group of friends and people you want to have around. It will help you enjoy the experience of hosting without the process of draining all the fun.
  • Get everyone to chip in. Hosting is a lot easier when everyone prepares a dish, and you keep food simple and tasty.
  • Serve foods that can be prepared in advance. This way, you can pace yourself and rest before guests arrive.
  • Have some help. Don't try and host alone – it's not worth it. Having one or two people helping you out can make a dramatic difference to how much energy you expend.
  • Use disposable stuff. Plates, knives, forks, napkins – whatever it is, make it disposable and cut your cleaning jobs in half. It's one less thing to worry about on the day.

Plan Your Gifts for Christmas In Advance

If you have time in the month leading up to Christmas – do your shopping then. You'll reap the best of Black Friday sales and get a stressful aspect of gift-giving out the way.

It's one more way to pace all the festive activities, so you don't do too much all in one go and exhaust yourself before the 25th even arrives. It also gives you the chance to write your doctors some Christmas letters and give them a little gift too!

Actually, Plan Everything You Do in Advance

Whether you're going to a restaurant, concert or museum, call ahead to ask any questions about disability that you have.

  • Is it wheelchair friendly?
  • Are there lots of stairs?
  • How much walking is required?
  • How comfortable are the chairs?
  • Can you book in advance?

You don't want to arrive at a restaurant with nowhere to sit – it's not worth it. It could also be in your interest to advise the place you're going to, if you're travelling with a service dog.

Schedule Time for Meditation and Gratitude

Everything you're dealing with can amplify during the festive season. It's more evident you have less energy than everyone else, you have less motivation and memories of poorly spent holidays in the past can creep on you, especially if they bring up heavy emotions. 

I know that Christmas is always a weird time for me because I was diagnosed around that time. That year, I couldn't even hang a Christmas decoration up without falling over from fatigue. I stayed in bed for everything, and it hurt because of how much I love Christmas.

About a year later, my health had deteriorated, but I had also been introduced to journaling and mindful meditation. And working through the things I was grateful for changed everything.

If you're new to meditation, then you need to check out our FREE 7 Days to Happiness Chronic Illness Programme. I share some awesome gratitude meditations there – one even involves chocolate. Festive, no?

It might sound silly, but thinking and writing out the things you're grateful for can help alleviate stress and help you gain perspective. Here's why:

  • It helps you find the little joys in life.
  • It allows you to build compassion for the people around you.
  • It's a pure form of self-care.

Pack in Advance for a Trip

There are four things you need to consider if you're travelling with a chronic illness:

  • Your medical folder and supplies;
  • Comfort items;
  • Your daily aids; and
  • Some snacks.

Things like:

  • A valid doctor's note that explains your health condition,
  • One of your latest medical scripts or pharmacy receipts, and
  • A printed list of nearby hospitals, doctors and pharmacies are all essential extras.

In the end, it's all about being prepared. If you want the best printables to keep you organised when you travel as someone with a chronic illness, you need this: The Ultimate Chronic Illness Packing List (with Free Printables)

Final Thoughts

Managing the holidays and chronic illness is a challenge, to say the least. Communication and planning ahead are two essential things to keep in mind when you're building your holiday survival strategy.

Being mindful and taking care of yourself and remembering to say "no," are also ways to make the holidays enjoyable without compromising your health.

About the author, Marina

Marina Wildt is an experienced health and wellness writer, chronic illness warrior and founder of The Discerning You. In the last 12 years, she has gone from being paralysed in a wheelchair to living a full life alongside her conditions and now she wants to share all the practical advice that she has learnt with you.

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