Dealing With Holiday Stress and IBC

Guest Blog by Martha Van Dam

Holidays can be times of excitement and happiness, but they can also be times of extra stress and pressure, especially when dealing with cancer or recovering from cancer. Please take care of yourself during this busy time  and I hope that you will find moments of beauty during the holiday season.

Be honest and realistic with yourself and others

  • Be gentle with yourself and what you expect of yourself. We tend to mentally beat ourselves up when we don’t meet a self-imposed ideal. Now is definitely the time to relax those ideals.
  • Accept your limitations and work around them. Treatment for IBC is at best tiring and at worst debilitating. Now is the time to allow yourself to only do the things you are capable of doing and give yourself permission to let other things drop. My first chemo was on the Monday before Thanksgiving that year. In the next few weeks, I remember my mother asking me to, please, not put Christmas garland on the stair rail. She was afraid, that in a weak moment, I would reach for the rail and not have a secure grasp due to decorations. She was wise and I learned to release my expectations for what my house had to look like. She also offered to decorate my house for Christmas. The mental challenge I had was to let her! (I know, go ahead and roll your eyes at me.) I was exceedingly grateful for what she had done, but also had to challenge myself to relax about the things that weren’t done like I had done them for the previous 35 years. Other examples of things we can let slide: Christmas cards don’t have to go out, gift cards can be given for gifts, gift giving (or other traditions) can be dropped altogether or diminished substantially, meals can be brought in or we can go out (Cracker Barrel makes a fabulous turkey and dressing), traditional meals can be changed (it IS possible to eat spaghetti on a holiday!).
  • Allow others to help when they offer and ask them when they don’t! Are finances a major issue?Most communities have some kind special holiday help for families who need it. If you need help, ask! Do you have older children? This would be a wonderful time to ask them to be creative and cook whatever they want to have. Some churches provide Thanksgiving or Christmas meals for the community. Do you have a neighbor you could ask to split meal responsibilities with you? Do friends know how weak you are? Is it possible that friends would pitch in to help with meal preparation, decorating or shopping? Take (or ask someone to take) children to the dollar store to select gifts for siblings and friends.
  • Get plenty of rest. Ultimately, we have to be the ones to make sure that we are getting enough rest. Again, if you need to drop plans or ask for help, do whatever you need to do to get enough rest.

Be social

  • You have my permission to stay away from people (even if they are family) who are exceedingly stressful for you. People can be our best source of support but they can also be our most difficult challenge (and sometimes one person can be both!) I have found that since diagnosis, I have less energy period…and that definitely means I have to ration the people I spend that energy on.
  • At the same time, try to challenge yourself to spend at least some time around people, if it is possible and healthy for you to do so. We are social people who are designed for community but when we are sick or depressed, we often withdraw. That is a normal reaction, but watch yourself. Withdrawing for rest is okay. Withdrawing due to depression is counterproductive. If you do not have supportive family or friends, that can add to your sense of isolation, so it is important that you find groups to be a part of or individuals to interact with.
  • If you are unable to get out, can you be active in an online support group? Of course, I have a favorite. Our IBC group will be wonderful support during the holidays!
  • Remember that somewhere out there, is someone else who is struggling. If you have the energy and health, look around to find someone to help. Your health may keep you from volunteering at a homeless shelter, but could you donate items or the price of a turkey. Could you drop off toys at a local collection point? Maybe donate to the Red Cross, who will be providing meals in the areas devastated by Hurricane Michael and the California fires? Doing something for someone else who is struggling has actually been proven to help with depression.

Be creative

  • Think of one thing you can do (or ask someone to do for you) that can lift your spirits. Make sure to do something positive every day. It can be a very small something. Could you turn on Christmas music? Or ask someone to bring a holiday scented candle to your room?
  • If you are spending a lot of time in bed, ask someone to purchase for you, some new Christmas pajamas.
  • Determine that you are going to watch (at least) one feel-good, Christmas Movie. That is something you can do even if you are too sick to get up. I make it a point to watch, “It’s a Wonderful Life” every year. I just saw a clip from “White Christmas” which reminded me how wonderful that one is. I will definitely be looking for that one tonight. “Holiday Inn” and “Christmas in Connecticut” are two more that I enjoy.
  • Let someone drive you around to look at holiday lights.
  • Attend a church or community Christmas performance, parade, play or live nativity.
  • (My personal favorite) Create a blessing jar. Put a jar with a lid out on a counter or table. Decorate it if you like, but you don’t have to. Leave a little pad of paper next to it with a pen. Then, EVERY DAY, write down (at least) two things, that you observe/experience that are pleasing, on individual papers, then fold them up and drop them in the jar. They don’t have to be big things. They can be something as simple as you heard nice Christmas music while you were out at the store or you heard children laughing outside or you enjoyed the scent of a candle. This act does help our brains begin to recognize the pleasant blessings in our days, and the more of those that we recognize, the more satisfied and settled we tend to feel.
  • If you are up to it, take a local holiday class (baking cookies, making a holiday craft).
  • Finances a problem? Take your children to go in to the dollar store to select gifts for siblings or friends.
  • Make easy milk carton gingerbread houses with children/grandchildren. Include another adult if energy is a problem. I do this every year with my grands, and one DIL always stays to help. I could not manage several littles by myself.

The point is this. There is a reason that we celebrate holidays. Whether they are scheduled as a result of presidential executive order or Divine directive, holidays are designed to be times when we are refreshed and reminded of the things that are of highest importance…thankfulness, peace, love, giving. In other words, there are aspects of the holidays that can be uplifting and refreshing – encouraging and strengthening for us…even if…no, ESPECIALLY if…we have IBC. It is important to remember that the holidays are FOR US, not the other way around. If the time comes that we feel that the holiday is driving the car, then that is a good time to re-evaluate and take back the keys.

Thanksgiving and Christmas will arrive whether we want them to or not. We don’t have a choice in that, but, even from our beds and in a weakened state, we DO have a choice about how we will approach them. In January of 2020, we will be in the position of looking back at the 2019 holiday season. Will we want to look back and just be glad that it is over and that we survived it? Or will we want to look back and be glad that…even if we were sick and exhausted…we found beauty and encouragement in the season? The difference is up to us!

Martha Van Dam

About Martha

Martha Van Dam is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor. She earned a Master of Science degree in Counseling Psychology and a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology at Troy University.

Visit Martha’s site HERE.