For many people, the holidays are a time of joy and celebration. However, for patients with cancer and other serious illnesses — and for survivors — the season can be a time of overwhelming stress.
"For a number of different reasons, [the holiday season] is stressful for a lot of people, and adding an illness or treatment to that can be a real challenge," said Natalie Schnaitmann, L.C.S.W., director of operations at City of Hope's Sheri & Les Biller Patient and Family Resource Center
, in the video above.
The holidays come with the time- and energy-consuming tasks of shopping, decorating and cooking, Schnaitmann said, and cancer patients and survivors may feel pressured into trying to seem festive as well. But this can further exacerbate stress' impact on their lives, interfering with the healing process and leading to actual physical symptoms. These can include the inability to fall or stay asleep, physical aches and pains, and an elevated pulse or blood pressure.
Thankfully, Schnaitmann said, many tools and strategies can reduce stress — and its impact — during the holidays. She suggested:
First, gauge one's stress level. One of the first things a patient or survivor should do is recognize when he or she is becoming stressed so that the burden of stress can be controlled. Although stress' impact will vary among individuals, Schnaitmann said, common symptoms include trouble sleeping, unexplained aches and pains, and increased feelings of irritability, anxiety or depression.
Prioritize holiday rituals. Patients and survivors should consider forgoing some of the less-important holiday traditions and events to avoid becoming overburdened. "To reduce the impact of stress during the holidays, patients and survivors should look at the holidays in a more realistic way," Schnaitmann said.
Delegate tasks. "Cancer treatment might be a full-time job for [patients] ... and an incredibly important thing for them may be to share the responsibilities," Schnaitmann said. This includes enlisting family and friends to help with holiday shopping, gift wrapping, preparing food or putting up the decorations.
Take a breath. When overwhelmed with stress, Schnaitmann said, patients and survivors should take a moment for deep, slow, concentrated breathing. "What we learned from behavioral scientists is that the brain cannot be anxious if the body is calm," Schnaitmann said.
Finally, Schnaitmann encourages patients and survivors to contact their health-care providers for support in handling holiday stress. The Sheri & Les Biller Patient and Family Resource Center offers a variety of resources to help patients reduce or cope with stress, including reading materials, literature, support groups and professional services.