Five Tips for Managing Holiday Stress

December 21, 2021

When going through a cancer diagnosis, the holidays can come with a particular set of challenges. People with cancer may struggle with maintaining healthy habits, have to confront difficult conversations with friends or relatives, or feel a greater sense of uncertainty about the future, all of which can have serious impacts on the levels of stress and anxiety we experience. 

Compounding those struggles is the ongoing risks posed by Covid-19, as we weigh the physical health risks of gathering in groups during with the strain on our mental health that comes from social isolation. Grappling with those questions not only impacts patients, but their families as well, who may feel a greater sense of responsibility and concern over keeping their loved ones safe. 

By first acknowledging the fears and anxieties in our own lives, we can take proactive steps to manage our stress and stay positive over the holiday season. Below, Dr. Ian Sadler, member of the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC) and Assistant Professor of Medical Psychology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, shares his tips for patients and their families when it comes to managing stress over the holidays. 

In considering strategies that might be helpful as you navigate the holidays in the midst of challenging circumstances, it is so very important to keep in mind what “fits” you.  Some of the approaches below may work for you and some may not. Consider surfing with any of the following 5 strategies! 

  1. Practice Self-Compassion.  Treat yourself like you would a dear friend who came to you seeking help.  Be kind and generous with yourself. It is OK that you may feel angry or upset by what you are going through, and it is OK that someone in your support group of well-meaning family and friends may do or say something that triggers you. Don’t blame yourself. Say to yourself, ‘I am upset and that is OK. I notice that my body is feeling very tight. I will give this feeling some space and perhaps the more space I give it, it will move right on through and the tightness will be relieved. 
  2. Practice mindful breathing in association with Self-Compassion. Observe the negative thought or feeling you may be experiencing. Say hello to it and use it as a cue to focus your attention on your breath. Notice your breath and where you experience it (do you feel it in your nose, your mouth, your chest?). Enjoy each “in” breath, the “space” in between, and the “out” breath. There is such relief that comes with observing our breath.  Feel the internal volume of stress lower itself with this exercise. 
  3. Monitor your thoughts and feelings. Your diagnosis can certainly generate the thought, “Why me? What did I do to deserve this?” Gently challenge these types of thoughts (our thoughts pack power) with the following questions: “Is this thought assisting me in in any way? Is this the best use of my time?  What is this accomplishing for me?”  We cannot avoid certain thoughts and feelings, but by observing them and questioning them perhaps we can facilitate them moving on more quickly. Be kind and gentle with yourself when these thoughts and feelings visit. Consider a deep breath along with a schema shift. The simple practice of writing down three specific things you are grateful for and the reasons you feel such appreciation can generate an improved sense of well-being. Our brain has a wonderfully relieving response to this exercise. You deserve to experience the relief that comes with this simple yet powerful practice. 
  4. Pace yourself. Fatigue is one of the biggest challenges people face as they navigate their treatment. It is a trifecta of physical, emotional and cognitive symptoms. Make a deal with it. “I understand you are a side-effect of my treatment, and I will tolerate you.” Keep in mind that the more frustrated you are with your fatigue the worse the fatigue. Set limits with how much you do and consider energy conservation as the holidays can pose significant challenges. It is OK to say, No. It is OK to ask for help. 
  5. Prepare yourself for the questions/solicitous responding. Well-meaning family and friends will often ask questions you may be uncomfortable with or simply you would rather not discuss. They may often give unsolicited advice or commentary. You can be preemptive and let them know in advance that your preference is to keep the holiday chatter light. “I have a no sick talk rule this holiday.” Alternatively, you can prepare a sentence or two to change the conversation in the moment. “Thanks for asking, I’m doing…well/as best I can/managing, but I’m in holiday mode today. How have you been?”