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Managing Stress During the Holidays

Thelma Razo, MSW

red ornament on tree branchThe holiday season can be a wonderful yet stressful time. As portrayed in the media, we often expect the holidays to be filled with magic, kinship, joy and extravagance. This is not to say that holidays aren’t romantic and magical – however, we can get lost in unrealistic expectations that we or others set. This is complicated even further by adding a cancer diagnosis into the mix. All of this can bring on intense stress. The following five tips can help manage stress during the holidays.

Tip #1: Identify the source of stress. It is common to feel stress during the holidays. Stress doesn’t always stem from negative life events; it can be due to positive life events, too. There are many reasons one may feel intense emotions during the holidays. Cancer patients may think it’s obvious that stress stems from the diagnosis. Although this is true, cancer is much more complicated than that. Individuals facing cancer may feel stress due to grief, finances, fears, worries, side effects of treatment, family pressures or some other reason. Regardless of the reasons, when we allow ourselves to identify where the stress stems from instead of letting the feelings of stress take us down a negative spiral of thoughts, we are more likely to accept our current reality. In accepting this current reality, we can move to identifying what we can control which can help guide our actions.

Tip #2: Recognize your emotions. Keep in mind that, just like stress, emotions are inevitable. It is important that all emotions are recognized and given their respected attention. Recognizing how we feel is important in the process of managing stress. The goal is to acknowledge what we are feeling without letting these emotions consume us. While we cannot control the thoughts and emotions that come up, we can control how much attention we give them. Deep breathing, meditating, yoga, journaling and verbalizing what we think and feel can help us organize our thoughts and emotions.

Tip #3: It’s ok to say “no.” In identifying our stressors, we also learn that it’s ok to set limits. The holidays can be an extremely busy time. It’s important that you recognize and prioritize yourself, your preferences and your health. Sometimes we feel that we must engage in all holiday activities, so we don’t disappoint or offend anyone, thereby sacrificing our desires instead. Others may have certain expectations of you because it has been the norm in the past. As a cancer patient, it is of upmost importance that you recognize your limits and desires ahead of time. Ask yourself: “What do the holidays truly mean to me?” “What is important during the holidays to me?” “Why should and shouldn’t I engage in holiday activities?” Challenge the thoughts that may follow.  Answering these questions may remind you that you have a choice, you have control over what you do or do not do, and that it is ok to listen to yourself. The goal is obtaining awareness of your wishes in order to reach joy.

Tip #4: Prioritize yourself. When it comes to relationships with others, especially with toxic relatives, don’t expect that media magic of bonding and forgiveness. We don’t have control over others, only ourselves. Be prepared to avoid toxic individuals or practice methods that will help you confront them. Practice mantras like “I love myself, I recognize the pain and forgive,” “I open my heart and accept others as they are” or “I am enough and am grateful for me.” Feeling lonely is a reality for a lot of people during the holidays, especially for cancer patients. Even though many may find themselves surrounded by loved ones, it may still feel lonely because loved ones don’t always understand the cancer journey, and this alone can feel isolating. Support groups, volunteering, community programs and religious or spiritual events can help us develop a sense of validation, unity and purpose. Talking with a professional can also help us cope with feelings of isolation.

Tip #5: Be realistic. As mentioned previously, the holidays can be accompanied by unrealistic expectations set forth by our loved ones, the media and ourselves. Cancer patients tend to set unrealistic expectations when anticipating that the holidays will be the same as in previous years – unfortunately, this usually is not true. Many things have changed and acknowledging those changes will help you develop realistic expectations. Remove yourself from an “all or nothing” mind set. We can have that magical and joyful holiday season filled with kinship as along as we appreciate what is instead of trying so hard to meet expectations we don’t have control over, or we worry about how things “should be.” As the late Toni Morrison said, “[When you] trade your expectations for appreciation, the world changes instantly.”

Remember that stress is inevitable. Take the time to discover what stress-reducing techniques work for you. Take the time to ground yourself. Be mindful of the present and be grateful for what is. Strengthen your positive outlook and practice self-compassion. Set the intention to love and appreciate yourself and appreciate the beauty of what the holidays truly mean to you.