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Local Chronic Pain Association Offers Help for the Holidays

Jean Stratton

Struggling with chronic pain can be daunting at any time, but it is a special challenge during the holidays. Coping with the extra stresses and demands of this season is hard enough for anyone, but for those who suffer continuous or steadily recurring severe pain, it requires a major effort. Planning ahead and a willingness to accept alternatives are key to enjoying the holidays, says Anne Daughtrey, leader of the Princeton Chapter of the American Chronic Pain Association.

"Thinking ahead is so important. Decide what you want to do during the holidays, who you want to be with, who you don't want to be with, and where you want to be – at home or away. Then, plan how to make it happen. Plan how you want to use your energy and spend the holiday the way you want to." Sharing ideas and problems at meetings of the local chapter of the American Pain Association is especially helpful, adds Ms. Daughtrey. Earlier this month, she led a workshop focusing on "Making Your Ideal Holidays Come True." Attendees were asked to review past holidays, what they liked and did not like. Then they visualized their ideal holiday celebration. Finally, they were asked to come up with realistic, attainable goals for the upcoming holiday season.

New Traditions

"In our group, we spend a lot of time brainstorming. It's what we're really good at," she explains. "For example, someone may say 'I'd really prefer to do this, but my family expects that.' The group will put out a lot of ideas." The tried and true traditional holiday celebration can take its toll on those suffering from chronic pain, she points out, and sometimes new traditions can be introduced.

"You can have shared time with people you're close to, and it offers continuity, belonging, and family tradition. But sometimes, tradition can be empty, energy-draining, and rituals without meaning. We encourage altering them or making new traditions." If one is in a situation where difficulties can arise, planning ahead is again the best course, she advises.

"If you know you are going to have a certain experience with certain difficult people – some people are not understanding about those with chronic pain – if you plan what to say and how to handle it, when you go into the situation, you will be much more prepared and in control. "Also, be willing to do things in new ways," she adds. "Be willing to ask for help; ask someone to bring a dish, or go to a restaurant. One of our members started a sign-up list with chores she wanted people to help with – for example: setting the table, making the salad, washing up the dishes, taking out the garbage. She called it her 'Totally Tacky' list, but it is now a tradition. A lot of people don't think to ask to help, but they want to. It is definitely okay to ask them for help."


Another way to make a holiday dinner easier is to be flexible about tableware and settings, says Ms. Daughtrey. "It is possible to serve dinner on very attractive paper plates to cut down on the dishes. If cooking is a problem, you can have part or all of the meal catered. It cuts down on the physical exertion of doing it and the stress and worry about preparing it. "Taking advantage of prepared and catered food is so important. With prepared food, it's just a matter of heating it up. You could also use a ready-made stuffing, and add your own special seasonings to make it yours."

Thanksgiving, of course, is followed by Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year's, with all their surrounding events, activities, and demands. "The first Wednesday in December, we will get together to talk about planning for Christmas and Hanukkah," she notes. "We'll emphasize the planning – how do you want to spend your time and energy? The holidays are hard on everyone – not enough sleep, having to shop, all the parties, getting the tree up, the cards out. It's a whole lot more going on than in your normal daily life.

"Again," she continues, "decide how much of this to do. With gifts, plan ahead with mail order, on-line shopping, gift certificates, phone cards, a book of stamps, tickets to a performance or sporting event, or favorite restaurant. Also, more is not always better. Handmade and homemade are very much appreciated. "You can be the one to suggest not exchanging gifts this year. Instead, put the money together for charity or an event you can all enjoy together." Social Activities Getting a Christmas tree is a big item. Whether to get the tree or not – consider the options, suggests Ms. Daughtrey. "A small table tree is easier to manage, and an artificial tree requires no maintenance. There are ways to decorate and keep the holiday tradition without overtaxing one's energy." Social activities always intensify during the holidays, and this, too, can place added stress and strain on people struggling with pain. Ms. Daughtrey emphasizes the importance of alternatives or simply saying no when the social schedule gets too heavy.

"Our group used to have our holiday party in December," she explains, "But it just got too busy, and now we have our party in January, when there is a lot less going on. People look forward to it, and celebrate their past year's accomplishments." One of the most important things people can do is to pace themselves and not overdo," she adds. Employing such means as meditation, imaging and visualization, vocalization, breathing techniques, and light exercise are ways to help manage pain.

"Also, take a break every so often and rest so that the level of pain does not become unendurable." Listening to music can be helpful and having pets is a plus, adds Ms. Daughtrey. "Just stroking my golden retriever is relaxing and pleasurable, and you are also putting your attention on something else. I find when you focus on others, you invariably help yourself."

Extraordinary Challenges

In addition, she points out that if travel is part of the holiday plan, head out a day or two early, so there is time to recuperate before the event and you can enjoy the holiday festivities. Being part of the American Chronic Pain Association and sharing with others who understand the extraordinary challenges of facing chronic pain is important to Ms. Daughtrey's sense of well-being. Chronic pain affects not only the one suffering, but relationships with family, friends, and one's self-esteem, she adds, and it can lead to depression.

"When someone has chronic pain, day in and day out, year after year, it is difficult to live with. That is where the hope comes in with our group. We try to offer attitudes and ways to deal with it and stave off depression. Being active and trying to keep busy is helpful. Our group is all about helping people improve the quality of their life." Ms. Daughtrey is especially grateful for the Princeton Chapter which meets twice a month at the University Medical Center at Princeton.

"We all look forward to the meetings. We provide information and education to help members manage their pain and ideas on how to function better. And we're big on gratitude. Personally, I'll walk away being grateful that I don't have what someone else is dealing with. We always try to find something to be thankful for." For more information on the Princeton Chapter of the American Chronic Pain Association, call 609-799-4681 or 609-882-1182. For information on the national organization, call 1-800-533-3231. Website: www.the


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