Holiday Cheer

Helpful tips to minimize end-of-year stress and maximize the spirit of the season

As the autumn leaves start to fall, the holiday season is upon us. And between the hustle and bustle of decorating, shopping, food preparation and social gatherings, the holidays can be a source of increased stress. Anyone can feel overwhelmed this festive time of year, but for people living with neuromuscular diseases, managing the additional activities and expenses is crucial to maintaining mental, physical and financial health. Consider the following tips to help you plan ahead.

Diet and food prep

If you are cooking a holiday meal, review the recipes you intend to include weeks before they are needed. Determine which dishes can be made ahead of time and frozen. To prevent fatigue, pace yourself by cooking only one recipe per day or every other day. For cooks who can’t lift a huge turkey or use a hot oven, order the meat from a local restaurant or grocery store, and stick to easier-to-prepare side dishes.

And when in doubt, delegate tasks to family and friends. When entertaining, divide the work by throwing a potluck party. Use paper products instead of the fine china to make cleanup a snap. Don’t overexert yourself before the party even begins; ask a friend or two to arrive early to help with the preparation.

Holiday dishes are notoriously high in fat. “If you eat well 80 to 90 percent of the time and you’re not having tons of snacks and treats, then in many cases you should be allowed to go to a party and eat what you want,” says Elana Sussman, registered dietitian at Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA, site of an MDA clinic. But for individuals with special diets or food restrictions related to a diagnosis, consult a dietitian and care provider on specific options and goals, she adds. 

To enjoy the holidays without sabotaging your waistline, Sussman offers these tips as well:

  • Don’t skip meals. Going to a holiday function starving will invariably lead to overeating.
  • Bring healthy dishes to holiday events. If cooking is a chore, pick up a fruit or vegetable tray at the market. For people who have difficulty swallowing, bring a smoothie and let the hostess pour into small cups to share with other guests.
  • Load half your plate with vegetables, fruit and lean protein. Take only a bite or two of food with creams or sauces.
  • Alcohol inhibits your ability to make good food choices. If you are allowed alcohol, limit consumption — a conservative serving is four ounces. Calorically, red wine is always a better choice than mixed drinks.
  • Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and feel full. Holding a glass of water also keeps your hands occupied so you aren’t munching on the appetizers.

Families and friends

Holidays sometimes create unwanted drama. The uncle who overindulges in the eggnog and the sisters who always fight are emotionally draining on those around them. People who have chronic health conditions need to set parameters regarding visitors, whether family or friends, advises Sheilah Storch, a licensed clinical social worker at the MDA Clinic at Texas Neurology in Dallas.

Before the holidays, it’s a good idea to communicate with your potential visitors. Schedule visits when you typically feel the strongest. For instance, many people with neuromuscular diseases have more energy in the morning and tend to tire in the afternoon, Storch notes. Crowds can be overwhelming for some individuals, especially those experiencing sensory loss or communication difficulties. Limit the number of visitors to two or three. If you are able to join friends and family outside your home, then it is easier to exit when your stamina is waning. 

If you are traveling to see relatives, consider staying at a hotel. An all-suite property is typically more spacious. The added square footage is worth the expense for people who are traveling with bulky medical equipment. Book reservations early, as hotels have a limited number of accessible rooms. If you are entertaining houseguests, set a limit to the number of days they can visit or ask them to spend some of their visit in a hotel.     

Gifts and other expenses

Overspending on gifts, party outfits, decorations and all the other activities surrounding the holidays also can cause stress. Planning ahead for purchases and setting a realistic budget is paramount to avoiding the buyer’s remorse that accompanies an inflated credit card bill. Consider these tips to get started:

  • Make a list of every person who will receive a gift and determine the total budget. Before heading to the mall, compare prices online. To avoid dealing with excess crowds and traffic, purchase gifts throughout the year, as items go on sale — or shop online.
  • Instead of giving to every person, suggest that family members, perhaps adult siblings, draw a name and exchange a gift with a predetermined price cap. 
  • Keep it simple and make donations on friends’ behalf to a favorite charity, like MDA.
  • Save money and buy decorating supplies at the dollar store. For people who have difficulty cutting wrapping paper or manipulating tape, stock up on gift bags and tissue paper. The addition of a $1 ornament can turn a solid-colored bag into a holiday-themed package.  
  • Handmade items are all the rage. Save money by rolling up your sleeves and creating one-of-a kind gifts. Some examples, like building a bird house or painting a set of notecards, can even be made with the help of children. Look for inspiration on Pinterest.
  • Scan the newspaper for free concerts and performances. Check with the Convention and Visitor Bureaus where you might travel for affordable events, parades and holiday markets. 
  • Many local MDA offices sponsor a holiday party for families,
  • as well.

Above all else, don’t feel pressured to be perfect during the holidays. It’s OK to scale back. Be picky about how you spend your time to ensure you’re rested for the events you do attend. In other words, during this hectic time of year, remember that it’s OK to say, “No.” 

So take a deep breath, relax and enjoy the season.    

Barbara Twardowski has Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT) disease and uses a power wheelchair. Jim, her husband, is a registered nurse. The couple lives in Mandeville, La., and writes about accessible travel, assistive technology and related issues.

A Little Holiday Help

Many people seek out volunteer opportunities during the holidays, and some high schools even require students to fulfill service hours. Reach out to local schools and community groups, like scouting troops and religious organizations, to inquire about assistance with holiday baking, decorating or gift-wrapping. Or contact your local MDA office for help finding such leads. 

MDA Resource Center: We’re Here For You

Our trained specialists are here to provide one-on-one support for every part of your journey. Send a message below or call us at 1-833-ASK-MDA1 (1-833-275-6321). If you live outside the U.S., we may be able to connect you to muscular dystrophy groups in your area, but MDA programs are only available in the U.S.

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