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Handling Holiday Stress

by Samantha Burns Artherholt, PhD

Wellness image

For many of us, the holiday season is a wonderful time of year, bring­ing with it meaningful traditions and fun family gatherings. However, the holidays can also bring their share of stress, especially for cancer survivors who may be dealing with fatigue or other treatment-related side effects. Keep reading for advice on how to handle common holiday stressors and have a happy, healthy holiday season.

With pressure to spend money on gifts, food, entertainment, and travel, in addition to medical ex­penses, dealing with finances during the holidays can be a major source of stress. Try these tips for easing the financial strain of the season:

  • Be realistic. Take a good look at your finances, determine how much you can spend this year, and stick to your budget.
  • Limit the number of gifts you buy. Instead of purchasing gifts for each mem­ber of your extended family, consider drawing names and only purchasing a gift for the family member whose name you draw. Or you might suggest that your family donate to a favorite charity or volunteer together instead of exchang­ing gifts this year.
  • Get creative. Homemade crafts and treats often are more treasured (and less expensive) than store-bought gifts.

Focus on doing some of the things you want to do. Ask yourself, “What would I like to do this holiday season?” and “What gives me joy?”

Author of Article photo

Dr. Samantha Artherholt

Grief and Loss
Feelings of grief and sadness may not be conducive to the holiday spirit, but these emotions are surprisingly common during this time of year. Certain events and traditions may trigger memories of loved ones who have passed away. The first holiday season after a loss can be particularly challenging. Consider these strategies for managing these difficult emotions:

  • Don’t deny your feelings. It’s OK to feel sad about the loss of a loved one, even if it happened quite a while ago.
  • Consider celebrating the holidays in a new way. Sometimes, especially in the first year following a loss, it can be too difficult to participate in traditional holiday celebrations without your loved one. Spending the holidays in a different location – at a friend’s house or perhaps even in a different state or country – might help take your mind off your grief.
  • Reach out, and share happy memo­ries. Sometimes it helps to talk about your grief with a family member or a trusted friend. You might learn that they, too, are experiencing similar emotions. If you’re feeling lonely, find a local event or religious celebration where you can interact with others.

The hustle and bustle of the holiday season can be exhaust­ing, even if you aren’t going through cancer treatment. You may feel pulled in multiple directions, with travel, social activities, and family commitments piled on top of your usual everyday demands. Exhaustion can intensify your stress and weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to colds and other illnesses – which is the last thing you need! These strategies might help:

  • Plan ahead. Set aside specific days for errands like shopping and baking so you have time for visiting friends and par­ticipating in other activities you enjoy.
  • Set realistic expectations and bound­aries. The holidays don’t need to be “perfect.” Learn to say no; people will understand if you can’t participate in every event or activity. Ask for help when you need it.
  • Don’t put healthy habits on the back burner. Be sure to get plenty of sleep and exercise. Eat a healthy snack before going to holiday gatherings so you’re not tempted to go overboard on sweets, snacks, or alcohol.
  • Take some time for yourself. Close your eyes, and take slow, deep breaths to help elicit a sense of calm. A few minutes of this restorative alone time may refresh you enough to tackle the rest of your to-do list.
  • Focus on doing some of the things you want to do. Ask yourself, “What would I like to do this holiday season?” and “What gives me joy?”

Many cancer survivors find that they have a renewed outlook on life and ap­preciate time with family and special traditions even more than they did before their diagnosis. By tak­ing note of what causes you stress and taking steps to alleviate that stress, not only can you survive the holiday season, but you can enjoy it as well!

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Dr. Samantha Burns Artherholt is a clinical psychologist specializing in supporting sur­vivors of cancer and other serious illnesses at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, WA.

If you feel that sadness, irritability, or anxiety are interfering with your enjoyment of the holidays or life in general, talk to your medical team. Don’t hesitate to seek out professional help if you need it.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2013.