The holiday season can be taxing for anyone, but I know from my clients that it’s even tougher on folks with autoimmune disease. Whether it’s grappling with the fatigue symptomatic in any autoimmunity issue or figuring out the details of what to eat while out and about, this season of social gatherings can leave one feeling depleted, frustrated, and isolated. As we head into the winter months, I want to take the time to share some tips on how to get ahead of the exhaustion that can come with the holiday season.
Why does this time of year feel so daunting?
The deck can feel stacked against autoimmune sufferers any time of year, but especially so around the holidays. First of all, there are physical symptoms to contend with: trying to motivate to head to a party when your skin is itchy, you’re very tired, or (yikes!) experiencing diarrhea is no easy task. Even if you’re at the home of a friend and not at a bar or restaurant where you might feel less comfortable, chatting with folks when you’re not physically up for it can feel like a chore.
Not only that, but catching up with friends often means answering the question, “How are you?” which is never straightforward. How authentic do your friends or coworkers want you to be? Do they want to know the stress you’re having about your nutrition, or about the family member who is struggling to get their head around your disease? Are they interested in the intricacies of your shopping list or that you just can’t seem to get warm even in a room full of people? Walking this line is tiring! It can feel easier to just say, “Oh, I’m fine!” and redirect the conversation—but that doesn’t lead to a feeling of connection at the end of the night.
Here are some tips I’ve found work well for my clients when they’re staring down a schedule of social engagements that feels daunting—and keep reading for a special bonus section for party hosts!
1. ‘Tis the season for healthy boundaries.
It’s helpful to get clear about what you’re saying “yes” to: if going to holiday parties and gatherings gives you a feeling of connection, community, and family, then that’s great! The work it takes to get there will be worth it. On the other hand, think hard about accepting invitations that feel obligatory or likely to be draining. It’s worth noting what separates the invitations that feel best—are they coming from a group of friends who “get it,” or from people who know you less well and aren’t going to expect detailed explanations? Parties that are likely to be bigger crowds, or smaller? Zeroing in on these factors will help make it easier to decide on future parties.
2. Prepare an elevator speech.
One of the most common remarks I hear from my clients is that they just don’t know what to say about their disease in social situations to explain why they’re not drinking/eating specific foods/seem tired, etc. We work to develop a quick statement that allows them to own their condition without needing to hash out all the details. For example: “I’m experimenting with food and trying to figure out what makes me feel best,” or “I’m learning a lot of new tools that are influencing my health right now, and trying to dial things in so that I feel better.” Look at the conversation as an opportunity to introduce the concept that food is a tool for healing—not only is this important to say out loud, but it can be empowering to those who might also be struggling.
3. Make a plan.
It’s much easier to budget your energy for a gathering if you’ve spent a little time making a game plan beforehand.
- Before the party, think about a time frame for attendance that will feel reasonable to you. There’s no need to be the last person standing! Figure out what a socially acceptable (but abbreviated) arrival and departure time will be, and stick to it. Your body will feel much better for it.Plan to bring a dish to share that will satisfy you nutritionally, too. If the party isn’t a potluck, research the menu—it’s not unusual or out of line to ask to chat with the chef to find out whether various dishes include specific ingredients.
- Consider bringing along a beverage to satisfy social cheer if you don’t expect them to be available (nothing wrong with keeping a SodaStream bottle or case of La Croix in the car for times like these)!
- It can be helpful to have some non-perishable snacks handy in your purse or car just in case there isn’t much offered that you can eat. Even though it is optimal to feel confident in your lifestyle and food needs, there is no shame in eating some healthful snacks in private if necessary.
4. Have an ally.
Perhaps you have a friend who’s done their part to learn the details of your condition—if they’re coming along, that can help alleviate the social anxiety you might feel. Let them know what you need so that they can support you.
5. Manage your energy for a marathon, not a sprint.
The holiday season seems to start earlier, end later, and be more jam-packed with social events each year. Don’t let the busy calendar take over and cause you to neglect soul-centered self care and sleep.
6. Act with confidence.
While autoimmunity challenges might feel like they set you apart socially, it’s also an opportunity to own what’s going on in your life. The fact that you’re learning how to better nurture yourself sets a great example for those around you. Don’t stress too much about the impact you have on other partygoers! Not everyone will understand and that’s okay.
And, because I also get questions from friends and family looking to support those with autoimmune disease, I’ve included a bonus section!
How to be the autoimmune host/hostess with the mostest
1. ‘Tis the season for healthy boundaries.
(Are you sensing a theme here?) You may not be able to meet the needs of every guest’s specific diet, and that’s fine. Do your best to offer a variety of foods and beverages, and make yourself available for folks who may have questions. Folks who are early in their autoimmune journey can have a difficult time navigating these conversations—and I can just about guarantee they feel like a nuisance—so do your best to have patience and know that no one is trying to hassle you.
2. Ask better questions than “How are you?”
While it comes out of my mouth so quickly I often don’t think about it, I have a lot of success when I try to be more creative—particularly when I know folks have been dealing with health challenges. Here are some quick suggestions:
- How’s your energy lately?
- I’ve been thinking about you lately and wondering how it’s going with the ______ that you shared recently.
- What’s working well for you lately?
- You’ve been on my mind; I’m curious how you have been feeling?
- What shifts have you noticed since changing ______ or incorporating _______
3. Provide food labels.
This is such a tiny thing, but the gesture goes a long way for anyone trying to avoid certain foods. Labels don’t have to be fussy—sticky notes on the counter work just fine! It is hard to know what someone might be looking to avoid in food so including all ingredients is helpful. It’s an easy thing to ask of folks bringing dishes to a potluck. Just hand them a pen and notepad when they set their dish in the serving area. If you like, go the extra mile and organize a recipe share: ask everyone to bring the recipe they used for guests to take pictures of for their own future use.
4. Be an ally.
If you have a friend who deals with an autoimmune disease, understanding a bit about it can be a huge help in social situations. Just knowing that there’s someone at the party who understands without needing more detail about their health issues can alleviate social anxiety! While you don’t have to drop everything to support them, asking about one recipe you can make that’s compliant with their diet is an excellent way to show you care. Approach it as an opportunity to add to your recipe stash, and everybody wins!
These lists are certainly not exhaustive, but hopefully they’ll set you on a path toward celebrating the season in good style and with plenty of energy. What are your surefire strategies for attending a slew of gatherings? What have you found to be the most helpful from party hosts? Share in the comments below!