Thriving Emotionally During the Holidays

By on December 23rd, 2014 Categories: Day-to-Day Matters

The holidays bring a mix of happiness and stress, hopefulness and memories, and mixed emotions for many. 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 shopping, cooking, 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 ill at a “happy” time are all normal and need to be acknowledged. There is no reason to feel guilty or embarrassed by your own natural feelings. 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, 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. Embrace the traditions that brought you joy in past seasons. Then make room for new ideas and strategies that may work well this year. If you did all the shopping and 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 feel enriched. 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.
  • 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. 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. Experiment with mind/body approaches such as meditation, massage, relaxing baths, and naps that allow you to recharge. Check with your physicians about ways you can take the best care of yourself.
  • Don’t be afraid to say no! 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 and be supportive. If you are alone, consider joining with a community or religious group to share the holidays.
  • Cope creatively 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 snacks and treats rather than relying on holiday foods.
  • Those of us with children 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. Reading to them in bed or watching classic movies together 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 brief but precious time about cancer.
  •  Forced frivolity can feel empty and artificial. Acknowledging your worries and sadness while celebrating your strengths and courage can create a holiday experience that is uniquely yours. Breast cancer will 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 and her office number in New York City is 1.212.980.0578.

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