Mixed Feelings During the Holidays?

Most families are more of a mixed bunch of emotions than we see in the photo of matching outfits and happy smiles on holiday cards. Life cannot be photo-shopped, so in our own lives we see what really happens when the camera is off.

The holidays bring a mix of happiness and stress, hopefulness and memories, and mixed emotions for many of us. All of these feelings can combine in an especially bittersweet blend for women experiencing breast cancer. Coping with the real challenges as well as the joys of family gatherings and other celebrations can be an emotional roller coaster when you are dealing with your own illness.

Whether you are struggling with a new diagnosis, the medical issues of treatment, or ongoing illness, there are ways to make the holidays meaningful and special even as you navigate your personal way through the holidays with breast cancer.

  • First, acknowledge your own feelings. Anxiety, sadness, or anger at being upset at a “happy” time are all normal and need to be acknowledged. Expressing these feelings appropriately in different ways, such as confiding in a trusted partner or friend, joining a support group if you are not yet part of one, or even writing in a journal can all help. A breast cancer support group can be especially useful if you are feeling alone in a sea of holiday cheer. Only when you acknowledge and accept your upsetting feelings can you also be fully present to experience your genuinely happy feelings.
  • Make room for happiness and hope. Remember the traditions that brought you joy in past seasons. Change things that feel stressful, with new ideas and strategies that may work better this year. Shopping online can allow you to focus your energy on things you truly enjoy. If you did all the decorating and cooking in the past, let family and friends pitch in. You may hesitate to involve others for fear of burdening them, but most will rise to the occasion and many people want to help others. When people offer to help, it is useful to offer specific choices about help you really need.
  • Select your favorite parts of the holidays as if you were choosing off a menu of treats. That way you can focus your energy on baking one favorite type of cookie or decorating one special part of the house. Whether it is driving around to see the sparkling holiday lights, lighting a menorah, or other special traditions, choose the holiday highlights that mean the most to you. Attend only the social events you most enjoy. True friends will understand and be happy to be with you.
  • Nurture yourself. Make sure to eat well and get enough rest. Try to recharge when you can with mind/body approaches such as meditation, massage, relaxing baths, and naps. Check with your physicians about ways you can take the best care of yourself. If you feel a need for more individual emotional support and insight, consider working with a psychologist or other licensed psychotherapist.
  • It is OK to say no when you don’t feel up to volunteering. This is probably not the year to organize the class party or host the big family dinner alone. Be clear about what you are able to do, and be sure there is a backup plan so you do not feel pressured or overwhelmed. Allow your family and friends to help. If you are alone, consider joining with a community or religious group to share the holidays.
  • Creative planning helps with physical limitations. If you must avoid crowds, enjoy holiday movies, music, and books alone or with a few close companions. If you tire easily, shop online or shop catalogs. Avoid the buffet and enjoy the décor if you feel queasy. Sometimes it helps to pack your own healthy snacks and treats rather than relying on holiday foods. Creative planning helps with physical limitations.
  • Celebrating with children creates joy and challenges. We want the holidays to be special for them. Fortunately, children are resilient and enjoy helping. Let them help with decorating and present-wrapping. The results may not be picture perfect, but kids will remember the fun of doing it with you. Holiday movie nights and reading storybooks together in bed can make wonderful holiday memories while also allowing you to rest.
  • Thriving emotionally during the holidays takes planning. Accepting all your feelings is so important. It is okay to cry, though you can choose to do this privately or in the arms of a loved one or the comfort of your support group. There may also be wonderful times when you are swept up in a holiday moment and forget for a while about cancer.

Acknowledging your worries and sadness while celebrating your strengths and courage can create a holiday experience that is uniquely yours. Creative planning helps with physical limitations. Breast cancer may be a big part of your experience this year. Taking care of yourself emotionally can add fun, companionship, self-nurturing, new traditions, and many happy moments for you to enjoy.

Tamara Shulman, Ph.D., F.A.A.C.P. is a licensed psychologist with a private practice in Manhattan (NYC) and Clifton, NJ. She specializes in helping adults, adolescents, and children experiencing anxiety, depression, health issues, and relationship and parenting concerns. Her website is www.tamarashulman.com and her office number in New York City is 1.212.980.0578.

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