How do we deal with bad news?
When dealing with a chronic condition, we will periodically receive news we don’t like. It may be news about progression of a disease, finding out about yet another diagnosis, poor test results, needing another procedure or surgery, or just run of the mill bad news like anyone gets from time to time. It can feel unfair and demoralizing. Why should I have to deal with more when I already have had to deal with so much?
People have different ways of dealing with these things. Some talk about their feelings. Some hide them. Some run to the computer and consult with Dr. Google. Some get busy. Me, I usually talk to friends and get tired. I think the emotional work fatigues me, so I sleep more. Not a bad way to cope as long as it doesn’t go on too long.
I found an interesting article about this topic on Oprah Winfrey’s website, How to Cope: Step Back and Get Some Distance. Author Tim Jarvis describes a technique called “self distancing” which allows one to perceive an experience in a less distressing way. Writer Paul Carroll wrote an article, Dealing with Bad News, on his blog Mightier than the Sword. In this post he offers a thoughtful analysis of some ways to cope as well as comforting words for these times. Interestingly enough, he also compiled and edited a book, Poetry Against Cancer, which may provide comfort in the face of a cancer (or possible cancer) diagnosis.
Drawing support from one’s religious or spiritual beliefs is another strategy people use to cope with rough times. In the Christian tradition, relying on the support of one’s church is a mainstay. People request prayers be said for themselves or someone else who is suffering. Prayer gives a person something to do in circumstances that may be in all other ways out of one’s control. Being able to put one’s problems in the hands of a higher power is comforting to many people.
As I have mentioned from time to time, I am Buddhist in my outlook. While I do not practice meditation regularly, I do keep in mind the basic precepts of the Buddha’s teachings in my day to day life. Dr. Russ Phillips, a psychologist at Missouri Western State University, studied coping strategies used by Buddhist practitioners. One of his studies is described in this article on WildMind, a website devoted to teaching Buddhist meditation practice. He describes both helpful and not so helpful ways Buddhists cope with hard times, many of which mirror those used by followers of other spiritual traditions such as Christianity or Judaism. Of the strategies Dr. Phillips describes, I tend to rely on impermanence, mindfulness, and lovingkindness.
Impermanence is the concept that nothing lasts forever. Anything we experience in the moment, such as pain, happiness, anxiety, sadness, will pass. Nothing in our experience continues indefinitely. Mindfulness is simply being aware of and observing what one is experiencing in the present moment without judgement. This is similar to the “self distancing” technique described above. One can watch thoughts and feelings as they come and go and reflect on them. Lovingkindness is the practice of treating oneself and others with kindness and compassion. We can be kind to ourselves when we feel pain, rather than punishing ourselves for “bad” feelings or for having caused whatever has happened. If someone else has hurt us we can step back and consider the emotional pain that has caused that person’s actions. We can remind ourselves that this person just wants to be loved the same as we do.
I have had times when I was struggling with health problems and then yet another stressful event fell into my lap. My father’s death two weeks after I had surgery for a serious knee injury is one example. In that case I relied heavily on family, friends, and my therapist for support. I took things one day at a time and tried to remain optimistic. I’ve had ample opportunity since I began my journey with heart disease to exercise my coping skills. I have to do everything I can to minimize stress these days. I avoid stressful situations if possible. I try to get plenty of rest. I acknowledge my feelings as they come up and allow myself to cry if I need to. When necessary I contain the feelings, put them back in the box for later, so to speak. I talk things over with my family and friends. I remind myself that whatever is going on right now won’t last forever.
This week I’ve been offered another opportunity for growth. At the end of a particularly stressful day filled with car troubles and other obstacles to overcome, I got a phone call from my doctor’s office. I had a screening mammogram recently and now I need to go back for a diagnostic mammogram because a fair size nodule was noted in one breast. I remind myself that the vast majority of positive mammograms are not cancer, but it’s still hard news to deal with. I have to believe that whatever happens, I will be ok, I will be able to cope. There is nothing intrinsically good or bad about my situation. It simply is.