Chronic Illness and the Family Dynamic: Avoiding Triggers During the Holidays

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016

magical-partridge-in-a-pear-treeOh, the holidays. A lovely, heartfelt and beautiful time of year (mostly).

Gathering with family and friends can be very comforting during the holidays, but it can also be very emotionally triggering!

When you have been chronically ill for so many years, there is a level of burn out within the family and community. What's more, friends and family don’t understand the illness because, quite frankly, WE don’t totally understand the illness either!

Maybe family feels like it’s all in your head because they see you having a good day but then crashing after an emotional interaction. They can then say: “Oh, when you get emotional you start to have symptoms so… it’s an emotional issue." Hmmmm... Maybe... but they are only half right.

Everyone on the planet has a physical reaction to emotional stress. Everyone. Our bodies go into "fight or flight" response with both real or imagined stresses. The difference for those of us with chronic illness and sensitivities is when we go into fight or flight, we have zero reserves to bounce back.

When we experience emotional upset, our adrenals don’t have the same reserves so we cascade downward and our immune systems crash, which allows pathogens to grow and we become symptomatic again.


Family Dynamic Role Playing (listen in!)

In the spirit of our own family experiences and the holiday season, we held a group Huddles call during our "Fall Sessions" last year where we discuss how to communicate with family and friends over the holidays and beyond. I’m sure you can relate to some it!

Listen here (74 mins):

Right-click here to download this MP3.
Overcoming the triggers

It’s best to diffuse the possible triggers in the situation by telling family members about how you are feeling right up front. Tell them that you love them. Tell them that you are having a challenging day and that you can take care of yourself.


Ideally something like this:

"Hi Mom, Geez, I am having a really challenging day today. Just want you to know that I may be up and down and if I have a tone, I’m sorry. I love you. I know how to take care of myself. It’s not your responsibility and I don't need you to fix it. Just looking for your love and support. I’ll stay as long as I can. I love seeing you."



Telling people upfront and letting them off the hook before either of you gets triggered can be very powerful. If you need help, be very specific: "Could you pick up something from the store?... Help me vacuum or give me a ride?... etc). Speak clearly and confidently. Stay out of speaking like the victim. That will only trigger them.

If they react poorly, ask yourself what you wished they would say instead. Give that to yourself and walk away.

We have to remember that it can be excruciating to be around a sick person that you love. Our loved ones want us to be better. They miss how we used to be. And they feel helpless because they can’t fix it (and maybe a little bit guilty). You feeling sick is a big loss for them too. Do your best to listen. They have a side in this.

Also, remember that it’s possible that your illness reminds them of their own fragility and health issues that perhaps they are ignoring.


Many people are in denial of their own unhealthy habits, and sometimes they can feel inconvenienced by your special needs. Oh well. Stay strong: "No, I can’t eat gluten. Still. Thank you though. It looks great”

Save your energy (avoid conflict)
  • To avoid the food battle, it's always a good idea to eat your "safe food" at home and bring your own dish to the event. This is what we will be bringing (our Figgy Fudge Balls recipe).
  • It's a good idea to arrive early and leave early so you don’t dip too much (especially if you're sensitive to groups of people and your auntie's perfume!).
  • Remember humor— it’s your greatest tool. Keep it light. And obviously, avoiding long discussions about your health and politics would be wise. Try sharing your current favorite funny youtube videos instead.

And finally, if despite all your efforts it all goes haywire, then know you did your best and you can laugh about it with like-minded people. Our new Fall Sessions is open now -- you can sneak in here and meet others like you.

If you decide to sit out the holiday chaos, we hope you can enjoy the peace and the quiet sparkle in the air. There is so much to be grateful for.

Thanks and praise,

Dana (and Brent)




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