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10 Holiday Self-Care Strategies for People With Diabetes

10 Minutes Read

Handling the holidays and managing diabetes can be stressful, especially with the changes to your usual routine. Here are some strategies that can help you enjoy the holiday season.

The holiday season brings family and friends together for shared meals, gift exchanges, and celebrations. Among the joy and merriment, people with diabetes still have to manage blood glucose levels. Traveling, changes in sleep and social schedules, holiday feasts, and potential personal and financial stressors can make living with diabetes all the more challenging. 

While children, adults and caregivers who are managing diabetes during the holidays may have different challenges, the fact that they all want it to be a special time can sometimes add to the pressure.

Stacey Simms, host of the Diabetes Connections podcast and author of The World’s Worst Diabetes Mom, knows first-hand the additional challenges the holidays can bring. 

Simms shared the story of a Chanukah party her family attended when her son Benny, who has type 1 diabetes, was 8 years old. The party not only included Sufganiyot (jelly donuts that are included in many Chanukah celebrations) but also a donut-eating contest. 

“I think Benny scarfed down two donuts before the other kids had gotten through two bites,” Simms recalled. “All of our friends knew Benny had diabetes, and they were all horrified. How could I let him do this? How could I not? He’d always wanted to do something like this, and I was not about to say ‘No’ because of type 1 diabetes.” 

Simms didn’t want to forbid him from participating, because “I figured this way, he’d get it out of his system,” she said. “Sure enough, later that night, he literally got it out of his system. He was fine after that but decided that eating contests were one and done.”

A decade later, this episode is still fresh in her mind, Simms said. It underscores the challenges that the holidays can pose for both people with diabetes and their caregivers alike. The increased availability of celebratory foods during this time of year is just part of it. There’s also ample opportunity for guilt, blame and second-guessing that can derail even the most informed or enthusiastic party-goers. 

As a result, it’s essential, Simms said, to be kind to yourself and others as we mark these occasions. The key is identifying which self-care strategies work best for you. 

The diabetes community’s favorite self-care strategies

Here are some favorite holiday self-care strategies shared by people living with diabetes and those caring for people with diabetes:

  1. Don’t stress about sticking to the same routine. General advice that is frequently given to people with diabetes is to stick to a regular routine. That advice, however, might set some people up for failure. The holiday season is a time that tends not to be routine for many people. Dr. Mohammad Al-Jundi, an endocrinologist at Medstar Health in Maryland, tells his patients not to stress about sticking to the same routine during the holidays because it is an unusual time. Focusing on flexibility and adjusting might be the key to less stress, better problem-solving, and better diabetes management. 
  2. Work towards acceptance. Daniel Calabrese of Tennessee has been managing type 2 diabetes for 15 years. He shares that one of the most challenging aspects of living with diabetes is working towards accepting the diagnosis. Acceptance is important to ensure that you are taking care of yourself to the best of your ability. “Once you have accepted that diabetes is something you have to deal with, it makes it easier. No matter what the situation, you will have to make choices about your diabetes. I do enjoy a little slice of pie or cake at special celebrations, but I don’t choose to do that regularly because I want to focus on staying healthy,” he says. 
  3. Learn to say “no.” Melanie Teslik, spokesperson for the Association of Diabetes Care and Education Specialists (ADCES), encourages her clients to learn to say ‘no’ when needed. “It’s a special time of year that people should enjoy, with moderation being key. [I] support [my patients’] decisions, including saying ‘no’ if they do not want to participate in an activity that will cause undue stress,” she says.
  4. Focus on joy. Mary Ellen Phipps, author of The Easy Diabetes Desserts Cookbook, has been living with type 1 diabetes since the age of 5. She suggests focusing on enjoyment. “The holidays bring lots of foods we look forward to all year long, and depriving yourself will only leave you disappointed. If you want that real-deal-straight-from-grandma’s-oven piece of pecan pie, go for it! The emotional joy you will feel is so much better for you than the stress and anxiety of restriction on a holiday, or any time of year.” 
  5. Share in the spirit your way. Sandra Arévalo, an ADCES spokesperson, suggests focusing on sharing in the holiday spirit your way. “When going to a party, bring a diabetes-friendly dish that you enjoy. While sharing in the spirit of the holidays, you will make sure you have something healthy to eat in case you can’t [or don’t want to] eat much of everything else.” 
  6. Let go of guilt. Simms reassures parents of children with diabetes and those living with diabetes to let go of guilt. “Don’t feel guilty if you feel worried or uncomfortable doing things that used to bring you joy this time of year. All of the firsts after diagnosis can be difficult to manage, physically and emotionally. Be kind to yourself. We were all in those shoes and it may be reassuring to know that once your family is more comfortable with type 1 diabetes, you’ll be able to handle just about anything,” she says. 
  7. Avoid hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia. Al-Jundi reminds his patients to stay safe during the holidays by enjoying themselves but not overdoing it. Whether it’s limiting or avoiding alcohol consumption, remembering to take medications, or monitoring portions of treats, the goal is to stay safe and healthy. 
  8. Prioritize movement and mindfulness. Physical activity and mindfulness can be key to managing diabetes; they can also serve to manage stress. ADCES spokesperson Teslik encourages her clients to maintain their physical activity levels throughout the holidays. She also suggests support groups and mindfulness practices as tools to deal with holiday stress. 
  9. Pile your plate with protein and fiber. Phipps reminds us of the importance of eating fiber and protein at each meal, even during the holidays. “Whether it’s a special holiday meal or just a regular meal, both are incredibly helpful and necessary for balancing blood sugar [levels],” says Phipps. 
  10. Don’t worry about getting it “right.” Simms provides a good reminder about self-care and self-acceptance during the holidays. “Try to remember that you don’t have to get it “right.” For most of us, the holidays are a time when we still do our best at managing diabetes—it’s not as though you can stop—but it helped me to keep in mind that my son’s long-term health wasn’t going to be hurt by a couple of holiday parties or even an eating contest.” 

Bonus tip: Plan a getaway 

Calabrese jokes that taking a cruise is the best self-care strategy for managing diabetes during the holiday season. “You eliminate the family [stress] and life stress! Plus, the chef on the ship can personalize your food to be delicious and balanced, if you make those choices.” 

Handling the holidays can be stressful. Remember, the most important aspect of self-care is protecting your own well-being and health. Focus on the strategies that work for you to make the most of the holidays. Reach out for support from family, friends, and health care providers. Prioritize what’s most important and reflect on how it influences your diabetes care. Lastly, don’t forget to find joy during this season.