7 Tips for Handling Stress and Spine Pain During the Holidays

Recovering perfectionist shares her practical advice how to reduce stress and spine-related pain through the holidays.

I have read and written a lot about the role stress can play in triggering inflammation and pain, especially in my past role as Managing Editor of the pain journal, Practical Pain Management (PPM). As a migraine, neck and upper back pain sufferer myself, I have had to practice some of what PPM preaches and want to share my take on how to reduce stress and, hopefully, sail through the holidays relatively free of spine pain.

woman with a migraine headache wearing a Santa Claus hatThe holiday season is a particularly stressful and pain-provoking time of year for many people.

Tip #1. Give up on the Martha Stewart holiday. As a recovering perfectionist, I have had to learn the hard way that trying to make everything “just right” simply causes pain inside my head—literally, usually triggering a migraine and/or muscle spasms in my upper back and shoulders.

  • Nowadays, I have learned to ask for help. If you are planning on having guests or family over for the holidays, make it potluck and drop the illusion that everything is going to be picture perfect, and go with the flow.

Tip #2. Pace yourself. You’ve probably heard this before, but it’s worth repeating: when we are feeling good, we tend to overdo and then pay a painful price the next day.

  • Take the time to plan ahead. If you love to cook, remember that many side dishes can be prepped a day or two ahead of time.
  • Shopping early for holiday gifts also can be a big stress-reliever—especially if you shop online and avoid the madness of a last-minute trip to the mall. In all things, remember to pace yourself—slow and steady will win the pain race.

Tip #3. Diet. Watch out for the extra sugar, carbs, and gluten during the holiday season. We all tend to gain weight in the winter (especially if you live in cold weather climates), but extra weight also puts extra strain on your spine’s facet joints.

  • Back in September, I started an autoimmune diet based on a book by Amy Myers, MD. (The Autoimmune Solution. New York, NY: HarperCollins; 2015.) The diet is similar to a Paleo diet, restricting all sugar, grains, caffeine, legumes, and dairy. Not only have I lost weight, but I noticed a big difference in my level of aches and pains. This diet is not for everyone, but finding an “anti-inflammatory” diet that works for you will pay off in the long run.

Tip #4. When in pain….get help. While working on PPM, we covered a lot of the complementary, alternative and integrative treatments for pain management. I am fortunate to live in an area where there are many practitioners who offer such services. When I first started to develop low back pain, I saw an orthopaedist. He recommended a physical therapist, which was great.

Tip #5. Exercise. My mantra is, “motion is lotion.” As an editor and writer, I spend way too much time sitting and hunkered over my keyboard. I am far from perfect when it comes to getting enough exercise. Walking the dogs and cleaning the house about sums up the extent of my aerobic activities, but I have begun a morning routine of stretching and yoga. I took my first yoga class probably 15 years ago, but I never advanced beyond beginner status. So my routine is mostly done on the mat and focused on stretching the muscles in the low back and shoulders.

  • My New Year’s resolution, is to add more exercise into my routine.

Tip #6. Prayer and Meditation. I have not always been a churchgoer, but I have always had a spiritual life. I have found prayer and meditation to be an essential component in making me a calmer and saner person. I practice 10 to 20 minutes of meditation on most days (again, never done perfectly; life happens), usually along with my yoga/stretching routine.

  • I am of the school that there is a higher power, so when I pray it is usually to ask what is his/her will is for me today—I am not asking to feel better, but to be a better person and to be of service (more on that below). I find that takes the pressure off of me to know everything and run everything—and to best focus on what I have control over.

Tip #7. Doing Service. Doing something for someone else, whether that is reaching out to a friend and asking how he or she is doing, writing a card or making meals for people in need helps me get out of my own head and away from my problems, and focuses my attention on someone else.

  • Distraction is a great pain reliever, and doing some service has helped divert my attention from my own pain and focus on someone else. It works!

Final Words of Advice
The holidays can be a stressful time, but they also can be a restorative time of seeing family and friends. Chronic pain patients have had to learn to work around the illusion of a picture-perfect holiday—pain flares happen. By being flexible, taking the pressure off yourself, asking for help, and trying to eat right and exercise (when you can), you can have a less stressful holiday.

Updated on: 08/22/19
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