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How To Cope With Holiday Stress and Depression


Holidays are usually regarded as a time to celebrate traditions and connect with family and friends.  At the same time, the holidays can be a stressful and depressing time for anyone, and particularly so for a person managing cancer. There are very few people who don’t experience some kind of holiday stress and anxiety.  Add the extra emotions of managing a cancer diagnosis, and the season can be quite overwhelming. 

Following are time tested tips that may help, many of which are based on the recommendations of the National Mental Health Association. 

Prioritize your activities. To prioritize your activities, it helps to:

  • Start by making a list of everything that you want to get done.  
  • Then consider whether everything on your list needs to get done now. Keep things that don't need to be done now for your next list.
  • Are there activities that you can delegate to family or friends?
  • Of the activities that are left, think about what you can realistically do based on your physical and emotional ability. 
  • Then set a realistic time table.   
  • As you cross things off your list, you’ll have a greater sense of accomplishment.
  • For help creating a list, we provide a Prioritizer. With the click of a button, your list changes to your priorities. You can change priorities just as easily over time.

Let others help you. 

  • When people know specifically how they can help, they feel more comfortable.  
  • You or a friend can set up a schedule of the tasks that need to be done and the people who will do them. There are web sites that make this easy to do. For example, offsite link

Use the holiday as a time to share memories and to make new ones.

  • Being with family and friends is a perfect time to recall happy memories. Consider pulling together photographs, videos or souvenirs to start the conversation. Even without them, a simple question could start the ball rolling. For example: "Do you remember when......?"
  • The holidays are also perfect for creating new memories.  Celebrating whichever holidays hold special meaning in your heart and spending time together with loved ones should be your focus. 
  • Before meeting with a group of people, consider what you do and do not want to say about your health condition if asked.
  • No one knows the future.  Things will inevitably not go as perfectly as planned. However, what both you and your loved ones are likely to remember most is simply being together.

If you are in treatment, talk to your doctor about taking time off or changing your schedule during the holidays.

  • Do not take time off from treatment without speaking with your doctor first.
  • If you anticipate feeling too wiped out following chemotherapy to enjoy holiday events, or are planning to travel over the holidays, speak with your doctor about altering the schedule around activities important to you. 

Revise holiday activities to fit your current physical and emotional condition and prioritiesBuild time to rest into your schedule. 

  • Don't over extend yourself. 
  • Pace yourself. By pacing yourself, you will lessen stress and have the energy to enjoy gatherings you do attend.
  • Get rid of unnecessary obligations.
  • If you don’t feel up to celebrating, it’s okay to decline invites. Do accept invitations to spend time with people who are important to you. You are likely to find joy in the love and support of family and friends and in creating special memories. 

Look at past holiday stressors to see what has previously helped you cope.

  • If a stressor continues year after year, now is a good time to make a change. 
  • Recognizing the trigger helps you face it and also helps you find ways to make a change.

Keep your expectations realistic. 

  • Accept that real life isn’t like a television holiday special. Don’t expect things to be perfect.  Try to laugh at the reality of imperfect moments and go with the flow.
  • It is better to expect that relationships that have been rocky won’t be healed just because it is a holiday.  
  • Try to accept family members as they are. Do your best to be patient.
  • Expect that the way you celebrate the holidays is likely to change over time as circumstances change. It’s okay to pass on traditions that cause you stress and try new traditions.

Ease up on yourself. 

  • Expect that you won’t be joyful all the time.  
  • Be as kind to yourself as you would be to a loved one that was living with cancer.
  • Don't be surprised if there are times when you feel both sadness and joy at the same time.  

Share your feelings with friends and family.  

  • Keeping negative feelings to yourself is not healthy. If your cancer is advanced, it’s natural to wonder how many more holidays you have left to enjoy with your family.  These feelings are very real - talk about them with your loved ones.  It allows them to talk about it, too.
  • Share the low times and the high times. Tears can be a big relief and very healing; laughter can be very relaxing. In fact, Laughter Therapy has become popular and is based on research findings that laughter can help reduce pain and boost the immune system to aid in the healing process, as well as being a natural gift to help deal with emotional stress. (For tips about bringing humor and laughter into your life, click here.)
  • Consider joining a support group, even if it’s only to get you through the holidays.  You can participate in a support group at your treatment center or through a disease specific non-profit organization, or from the comfort of your home via the internet or on the phone.  For information about support groups, click here.
  • A ” Buddy Program”  is a great way to get one-to-one peer support from someone who can truly relate. You can connect with your Buddy from home over the telephone or internet. For information about cancer buddies, click here. To locate a buddy, see the following:
    • For people with breast cancer or ovarian cancer: offsite link, Tel.: 866.891.2392  
    • For people with colorectal cancer (anal, colon, rectal): Colon Cancer Alliance at offsite link, or call 877.422.2030
    • For people with lung cancer:  Lung Cancer Alliance:  Tel. 800.298.2436.
    • For people with any type of cancer: 
      • Your oncologist or his or her office staff. 
      • An oncology social worker.
      • Cancer Hope Network connects people with volunteers who have been through similar experiences. offsite link
      •, a non-profit organization, makes a connection with volunteer cancer survivors and caregivers who are trained as “Mentor angels” offsite link, Tel.: 312.274.5529

If you're not physically or emotionally up to going shopping,  or not allowed in holiday crowds, shop online or from a catalogue. Consider gift cards.

  • You can avoid lines by shopping early in the day in brick and mortar stores.
  • If necessary, enlist the help of others to pick things up for you. 
  • Gift cards can eliminate the stress of finding the “perfect gift.” If you decide to buy gift cards, check whether there are expiration dates and/or ongoing fees.

If a money crunch or crisis is causing stress, focus on the real meaning of the holiday. Heartfelt, homemade gifts send a thoughtful message. 

  • A holiday is not about the cost of a gift, or the amount of expensive decorations, or how much you spent on the dinner.  It’s about the people, the meaning of the holiday, being together sharing time and creating happy memories.
  • The best technique for reigning in spending is to create a budget – and stick to it.  
  • Consider starting the tradition of a “Secret Santa” or family name draw. These activities can help with the budget and still keep things festive.
  • Look for holiday activities that are free or low cost such as carol services at local churches or window shopping to see the decorations.
  • If you have children:
    • Talk to them about the meaning and history of the holiday you are celebrating.  
    • Encourage them to make presents at home and help them do so. 
  • While not specific to the holidays, it might help to read our article about:: How To Deal With A Financial Crunch.

Live healthy: Don't over indulge. Exercise. Get rest.

  • Keep food balanced and don't over do it. Overindulgence increases stress. 
  • Keep alcohol to a minimum. 
  • Good nutrition is important for your immune system which in turn helps your body fight illness. 
    • Make healthy choices at cocktail parties and holiday dinners. Avoid the cookies. 
    • It helps to eat healthy mini-meals throughout the day.
  • Exercise is very effective in elevating your mood by boosting endorphins.  Even short walks are beneficial, both physically and mentally. (NOTE: Don't exercise strenuously without consulting with your doctor first.)
  • Sleep is healing.  It helps the body maximize its ability to fight disease.  If you’re having trouble sleeping, speak with your physician or other health care provider. For tips about getting the sleep you need, click here.

If you are dealing with grief, use the holidays to help finish your grieving. Allow others to show their support.

  • Many different types of loss can cause grief – from the loss of a loved one to the loss of your health to the loss of a job. In cases of advanced cancer, you may be grieving the future.  We all grieve in different ways.  Grief can be a roller coaster ride with many ups and downs.  Grief can also leave you feeling tired.  
  • The key is to not bottle-up grief. 
    • Allow yourself to feel what you feel. 
    • Forcing yourself to be happy may cause additional stress.  
    • If you need to cry, find a quiet space and have a good cry.  
  • Surround yourself with people you feel comfortable around.  Let others be supportive.
  • If your grief becomes too overwhelming, seek professional help. Ask your doctor for a referral, click here to learn how to choose a therapist. For tips about dealing with grief, click here

Build in alone time.

  • Quiet, alone time can be used to recharge your energy and your emotions.  It can also keep the day in perspective.
  • For instance:  take a long bath, go for a quiet walk, sit in front of a fire, go to a movie.  Take on a short term project around the house.
  • Keep in mind that too much solitude can bring on feelings of isolation.  It is important to find a good balance between alone time to recharge and celebrating with family and friends.

Practice forgiveness.

  • Holiday time is not the time to bring up grievances or to allow someone else’s behavior to upset you.  
  • Set aside differences until a more appropriate time for discussion – you don’t need the added stress. 
  • Hanging on to anger and resentment will only decrease your ability to delight in the season.  The trivial things won’t matter next week or next year.   Enjoy time now with your family and friends and value the chance to be together. 

If you're lonely, get busy. Become active to the extent you can. Consider the following ideas to help keep yourself busy:

  • Consider volunteering. For instance:
    • At church or any of numerous organizations that provide holiday cheer to the less fortunate.  
    • Help gather toys for underprivileged children.  
    • Volunteer to provide transportation for church services or holiday events.  
    • Visit a local nursing home and spread some good cheer.  Raising others’ holiday spirit will certainly boost your own.
  • Start a new hobby or get lost in an old favorite.
  • Get in touch with someone you haven’t seen in a long time.
  • If you're single, seek out venues where singles gather, such as a church sponsored event. Check out travel packages for single people.
  • Fix up a room where you live. A coat of paint is inexpensive, can be distracting, and provide instant gratification.
  • Be part of the activities at the local community center or senior center.

Accept what you can't change. 

  • Don’t allow things you have no control over to ruin your holidays. 
  • Fatigue, discomfort, neuropathy, and physical limitations can hinder your traditional holiday tasks.   Think about what matters most, and modify the tasks to meet your needs.  There is no “right way” to celebrate the holidays. 
  • Stay in the moment.

Practice coping mechanisms that may work for you. For example:

  • Meditation:  This combination of relaxation and self-awareness can bring a peaceful feeling.  Spending even just five minutes at a time meditating can help you de-stress. For information about meditation, click here
  • Yoga:  Yoga has been practiced for years as a means to improve physical and emotional well being.  It can help with mood, sleep quality, and in reducing feelings of stress.  It reconnects you and quiets the mind. For an overview about yoga, click here. 
  • Listening to soothing music, or sipping tea are also good ways to relax and reduce stress.
  • Journaling helps deal with feelings and “unload” them.  In turn, this reduces stress. For information about keeping a journal, click here.
  • Make a “gratitude list.” During this season of giving, a gratitude list helps us look at the present and realize what’s most important in our lives. For information about keeping a gratitude journal, click here
  • Renew your spiritual beliefs by spending time in contemplation of religion and/or spirituality or participating in religious activities. Spirit is an integral part of the Body-Mind-Spirit healing that focuses on the whole person, and often becomes more prominent in the face of a cancer diagnosis.  Research shows that benefits from religion and/or spirituality include improved coping, reduced stress, a deeper understanding about life and death, and an improved quality of life.  (For additional information about spirituality, click here.

If seasonal decrease in sunlight causes you to suffer emotionally from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), get treatment.

  • Experts are not sure what causes seasonal affective disorder, but the consensus is a lack of sunlight could be the cause.  For some people, a winter decrease in sunlight can cause changes in mood and behavior. 
  • SAD is a form of depression and affects a person during the same time each year.  Because many of the SAD symptoms are the same as non-seasonal depression, it can be hard to tell the difference. 
  • Discuss with your physician whether you may have SAD and if so, the appropriate treatment for you.   Studies show that phototherapy (exposure to intense artificial light) can help.  Antidepressants and/or counseling are also used to help alleviate symptoms, as is exercise.  Talk with your doctor to see what options are best for you.

If you are planning on traveling over the holidays, check with your doctor first.

  • Ask about the timing of the trip, your proposed destination, and means of travel. 
  • Be prepared. Running out of needed medications, or trying to find medical care far from home can increase stress. 
  • For information about traveling, including how to prepare and what to pack in the carry-on click here

If you make resolutions, keep them doable

  • Resolutions are well and good, but can add stress to your life if they are impossible to keep. 
  • Making a list can be a very positive experience in itself.  

If none of the above ideas work, consider calling your doctor or other medical practitioner. 

  • There is a difference between the “holiday blues” and depression.  If despite the best efforts, you continue to feel sad and anxious and are unable to shake off these feelings beyond a few weeks, or if you are unable to carry on your normal daily activities, you may be dealing with more than just holiday stress.  Reach out for help from your doctor, social worker, other healthcare provider, clergy or spiritual advisor without delay. 
  • Depression can be treated and medication can help you through a difficult time. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. 
  • Sometimes asking for help can be the most courageous thing we do.
  • If you think you may hurt yourself or attempt suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline right away at 800.273.TALK (800.273.8255), or call 911, or go to the nearest Emergency Room. (To learn how to maximize your time in an emergency room, click here. )


  • Don't be surprised if there is a post holiday let down.  It is not uncommon to feel a let-down if the holidays were extraordinary or  even if they were disappointing. You may also feel a let down after dealing with stress or fatigue. 
  • Remember to stay on your daily medication schedule.  It can be easy to forget with holiday activities, but it’s not wise to skip your medications. If you do skip taking medications, let your doctor know. For information about buying, storing and living with medications, click here.
  • For tips about dealing with stress, click here.For tips about coping with depression, click here

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