Coping with confusing emotions at the holidays

Man looking sad out the window

Feeling hopeful and scared at the same time is not uncommon for cancer survivors, especially during the holiday season. Medical Psychologist Kathleen Shanahan, PhD, offers tips to help accept and cope with conflicting feelings.

“Happy Holidays,” we say to one another with a cheery voice during these five packed weeks between Thanksgiving and the New Year. Many of us celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, or the Winter Solstice, and our greetings highlight the anticipated joy of the season and the good will we extend to family, friends and even strangers. We imagine ourselves gathering with those we love, sharing special holiday foods and exchanging gifts, observing traditions passed down from generations before us. Whether with a menorah, a star, a kinara, or a yule log, the holiday season marks and celebrates the things most important to us: family, community, faith and love. 

Can you still feel festive when you’re worried?

For many of us, though, the holidays are more complicated than that. Our expectations are high, and the reality can’t always measure up to our hope-filled expectations. This can be especially true for cancer survivors. You may feel that you’ve come through the most important challenge of your life, and you want to celebrate, but you aren’t quite sure if that’s a good idea. Especially at the holidays, your family and friends want life to be back to normal. But the worries linger. Is it really over? Is the cancer really gone? Will it come back? Cancer has controlled your life for so long, you wonder if it’s really safe to let down your guard.   

For others among us, the holidays mean having to face disappointment that your family is not the picture-perfect family on the holiday cards you receive. Or maybe this year there won’t be any cards or dinners or hugs because people you’ve known and loved are gone. Sometimes we realize that our expectations — of the holidays or of each other — are just too high, and you feel emotions that seem out of sync with the season. We think we should feel happy and grateful, but instead we feel sad, scared, or even angry.

Therapy can help you find peace

It’s important for all of us to remember that our emotions will run even higher than usual at this time of year. The gap between our high hopes and expectations on one hand and reality on the other can cause disappointment in ourselves and others. So, what can we do? How can we approach the holidays in a way that lets us pay more attention to what we have rather than what we’re missing?

Dialectical Behavior Therapy, known as DBT, is a type of therapy that can help us feel more at peace with whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. The word “dialectical” refers to the idea that we can hold seemingly opposite beliefs and feelings at the same time. So next time you find yourself having strong feelings, ask yourself what else you might be feeling. You might find that you feel sad and happy at the same time, or scared and grateful, or disappointed and hopeful. DBT encourages us to notice our feelings and sensations, name them, and lean into them, without judgment and without trying to avoid them.

Let Us Help You

Roswell Park's Survivorship Program brings together many of our clinical and supportive services, as you face forward and learn to embrace a new normal.

Learn More

Once we know our feelings and have allowed ourselves time and space to feel them, then we can decide if we want to try to change how we are feeling. Changing our feelings isn’t always easy, but here are some suggestions:

  • Focus on your breath. When we are distressed, our breath gets faster. Try to slow and deepen your breathing. Breathe in as you count to four, hold your in breath as you count to seven, then slowly exhale as you count to eight. Repeat this for one minute, or more if you can. This will help to calm your body, and as your body calms down, so will your thoughts and feelings.
  • Practice an opposite emotion. If you’re feeling sad and find yourself pulling away from others, try reaching out instead. Socializing and focusing your attention on someone else will help to ease the sadness.
  • Focus your attention on the moment. Use your five senses to take inventory of what you can see, hear, smell, touch or taste. Using our senses to focus on the present moment is another way to calm racing thoughts and the flood of emotions.
  • Be gentle with yourself. Remember this is a new chapter of your life that is only now being written. Be patient and allow yourself time to figure out what is important to you as a survivor.

If you find that your feelings aren’t quite what you had hoped during this holiday season, please contact your medical team and they can make a referral to Psychology. We are here to help.