7 Ways To Avoid (Literally) Thanksgiving Pain

For some of us, the holidays trigger physical pain, exhaustion and stress. Here’s how to cope as we gear up for the year’s most festive season.
Frustrated Mixed Race Woman With Head In Hands


The holidays can be a pain, and by that we don’t just mean having to grin and bear it through your aunt’s all-too-personal questions or hosting your out-of-town in-laws. This time of year can trigger anxiety, stress and exhaustion in anyone, but especially in those who already suffer from chronic pain, fatigue or long COVID.

In his newly updated book, From Fatigued to Fantastic! (Avery Penguin 4th revised edition 2021), Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D., chronic fatigue and pain expert, recommends four cornerstones for reducing stress levels and pain during November and December: a healthy diet; restful sleep; exercise and physical activities; and spending time with the people who make you feel good. Easy enough, right?

But there’s a bit more to it than that. Using the principles from Dr. Teitelbaum’s book, we asked three Bergen experts to share their tips on how to stay healthy and best manage stress that accompanies the so-called “most wonderful time of the year.”

Eat healthy

The best way to avoid the bloat and “food coma” that comes with big meals this time of year? Fill up first on water and healthy fruits and veggies—raw vegetables have enzymes that boost energy levels. Stephanie Greenspan, RD, who practices in Englewood, says not to starve yourself all day in anticipation of the feast, but rather have a well-balanced breakfast and lunch so you’re not famished by dinner time. Whenever possible, opt for whole grains instead of white carbs.

Consume more essential fatty acids

Also known as EFAs, these foods are shown to help reduce inflammation, which can lead to pain and discomfort. EFAs include fatty fish like salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel, as well as walnuts and flaxseed, says Greenspan. Aim for 2-4 servings of EFAs per week.

Start slow and pace yourself

Before you fill your plate, scan the table to see what your options are. Greenspan recommends starting off with a salad or a broth-based soup, and making sure your plate is ½ non-starchy veggies like green beans, ¼ protein like turkey and ¼ starch such as mashed potatoes or pie. Wait about 20 minutes before going back for seconds—Dr. Teitelbaum says it takes about 20 minutes after eating to feel fully satiated—and load up mostly on veggies as your second helping. “Also try pacing yourself,” adds Greenspan. “No need to rush through the meal.”

Prioritize proper sleep

It’s easier said than done to get the recommended 7-8 hours a night, especially at the end of the year when there are holiday parties to attend and gifts to purchase online. Robin Ellen Leder, M.D., of A Better Alternative Medical Center in Hackensack, says to try to have most of your holiday celebrations during the day rather than at night, so you’re not up late and sleeping well into the morning. “Especially with the shorter days now, sunlight hours are essential to our health!” she notes. Try to consume caffeine and alcohol minimally if it bothers you or disturbs your sleep (yes, that means watching yourself at holiday happy hours!). “It’s important to remember that alcohol will often help in falling asleep, but it’s notorious for working briefly and might wake you back up in the middle of the night,” says Dr. Leder. If you do find yourself up at night stressing over what needs to get done, jot it down in a notebook rather than lie awake in bed ruminating, says Dr. Teitelbaum. You’ll find better ways to cope with the to-do list in the morning when you’re rested and refreshed.

Stay active

We all know exercising helps aid in weight loss and strengthens our heart, but working out in moderation can help reduce pain too.  “As long as exercise is not painful, it releases endorphins, feel-good chemicals in your body that overcome modest discomfort,” notes Dr. Leder. “Exercise also strengthens and stretches connective tissue and muscle, which can help diminish moderate pain.” The key is finding a workout routine that you enjoy so you stick to it, or finding friends who will keep you accountable. Invest in a pedometer to track your steps, for example, or schedule a weekly walk with a friend around the neighborhood. And don’t forget to layer up—long underwear under your joggers will help prevent muscle spasms, and a hat and scarf will keep your head toasty, Dr. Teitelbaum says.

Set boundaries

It’s OK to turn down party invites or hosting duties if they’re going to stress you out. Choose who you spend time with wisely, especially during the holidays, which should be festive and fun. “Decide what makes you feel comfortable and stick with it,” says Emily Austein, LCSW, a psychotherapist who practices in Ridgewood. “Discuss these with a friend or a partner for extra support.” And try to put the guilt aside by saying ‘no’ to people if that means putting yourself and your interests first.

Don’t be too hard on yourself

Don’t deprive yourself of all the holiday sweets, and don’t feel too guilty if you consume more of them than you’d like. Sometimes a few bites of sweet potato pie are enough to satisfy a sweet tooth, so try not to eliminate all the things you love. However, says Dr. Leder, “keep in mind that the most important thing during the holidays is to maintain vibrant health so you can enjoy the company of family and friends throughout the season and for many years to come.” As with most things in life, the holidays are all about balance, right?

How do you reduce stress and pain during the holiday season? Share your advice on Instagram @bergenmagnj.

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