It’s always exciting to be a guest writer on someone else’s blog. Last year, I was honored to be asked to contribute two articles to Shannon Miller’s Lifestyle online magazine. This article is the second in a series that I wrote for the woman who is known as America’s Most Decorated Olympic Gymnast and the only woman to be inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame–twice. Shannon was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer in 2011 and has a strong interest in helping others who are facing a battle with cancer. Here is the second article.
In my first article for ShannonMiller.com, I shared some ideas about handling the first few days after receiving a cancer diagnosis. In this article, I am sharing some of the strategies that my clients and I have used when dealing with panic, terror, fear, and anxiety that often accompany that diagnosis.
COPING WITH CANCER: HANDLING THE HARD AND SCARY STUFF
As you know, if you are living with cancer, crises bring many difficult, often terrifying moments into our lives. We are stretched beyond our comfort zones, time and again, by the news that we hear or the potential outcomes that we face. Decisions must be made where the choices can be ugly or daunting and no one is available to take the blame if the wrong option is chosen.
So, how do you take back your power, when fear is threatening to run your life? Accepting that fear, terror, anxiety, panic WILL happen during this crisis is the first step in reclaiming your power. Once you acknowledge this fact, you have lessened fear’s control over your life. Too often, we spend energy we don’t have trying to avoid the unavoidable. Want some tried and true ideas about navigating your way through tough situations without letting the emotions and uncomfortable (and unhelpful) thoughts take over your life? Try these out and find the ones that work for you.
Prepare for the fear—Once you’ve taken the courageous step and admitted to yourself that fear will show up during this crisis, you can begin to plan for it. Ask yourself:
- When is fear most likely to show up? During the night when everything is quiet and dark? Before a visit to the clinic? When I am alone? Talking to a doctor? Think back on other times when your anxiety has peaked and see if you can find a pattern.
- What will be the triggers I can already foresee that will bring terror, anxiety or panic to my doorstep? Will it be thinking about my loved ones? Wondering about the future? Seeing an insurance bill in the mail? Hearing the doctor talk about a new treatment plan? Talking to other cancer patients or people who have faced medical crises can give you some ideas about potential situations that may cause your fear to appear or grow.
- What will help me deal with it when it shows up? Once you’ve identified the likely times and reasons for fear’s appearance, decide what will best assist you in calming your anxiety or reducing your fear. For most people, the answer to this question involves the five senses in some way. Having beautiful flowers near you, inhaling the comforting smell of a favorite essential oil, listening to relaxing music, looking at pictures of family, friends, or beautiful scenery, or praying in the presence of spiritual icons or images can bring you back to a sense of love or safety when your emotions feel out of control. Figure out what works for you and make sure that you have access to those items whenever you anticipate fear may make an appearance.
Get moving—Withdrawal or paralysis are our primitive brain’s survival responses to situations that feel dangerous. I know that when the surgeon told me that our son had cancer, I had an intense desire to pull into a tight ball and shut out the world. Unfortunately, despite the initial comfort of withdrawal, inertia can allow our thoughts to take over, driving us further into anxiety or panic, rather than letting it subside.
One of the best antidotes to the paralysis of fear is to make the shift to productive action, such as consulting with experts or getting more information about a decision. For some people, a more immediate (and manageable) step is physical movement– going for a walk or changing locations to a place that is not associated with the fear (if possible). If physical action is not an option, “move” your brain from focusing on the anxious or fearful thoughts by picking up a book, changing the conversation, turning on a favorite movie, or meditating.
Create space and time for emotions and tears. It’s counter intuitive but true. As children, we were often taught by the adults around us not to express emotions that were uncomfortable to them. However, when unaddressed, emotions gain even more power in our lives and sap our energy as we try to keep the feelings suppressed. Uninterrupted time to just let the tears flow or the angry words erupt from deep within you can clear the mind and bring a feeling of calm, if only temporarily.
It is important to be thoughtful about when and where you let decide to “let go.” Make sure that it is a safe location—either by yourself or with someone who will provide a compassionate presence. Some people allow themselves to feel and express the built up emotions during time alone in their car, while taking a shower, walking their dog, during intense exercise, or in their bedrooms. For me, the 8 am spin class, held in a darkened room with loud music all around me, was the perfect place to let tears mingle with sweat.
Regardless of what you choose to do, create a ritual to bring your release time to a conclusion. It can be as simple and natural as washing your face, taking in and releasing a deep breath, saying a prayer, or treating yourself to a moment of self-compassion by hugging yourself or placing your hand on your heart.
Take back control. Whatever you do, remember, as scary as your crisis feels, you have a measure of control over how much time you spend dwelling on the anxiety provoking situations. If you are not actively problem solving, you are likely spending precious time in a state that does no one, especially you, any good! If it seems impossible to stop the thoughts, try setting a timer and writing down everything that is rattling around in your brain. When the timer goes off, put the paper away and do something active. Promise yourself another session of worry later in the day, if you need it, but try to stretch out the time between those sessions until you get a bit more of your day back for productive action.
Crises can bring huge challenges but you can fight back against the fear and anxiety. Remember the immortal words of Christopher Robin to Winnie the Pooh:
“You are braver than you believe,
stronger than you seem,
and smarter than you think,”
Looking for more ideas? If you want to explore other ways to handle the fear and anxiety of your crisis, as well as discover some practical ideas about how to stay whole while going through each stage of a life-changing crisis, consider checking out my new book: The Gift of Crisis: Finding your best self in the worst of times. It’s just out and available on Amazon!
It’s always exciting to be a guest writer on someone else’s blog. Last year, I was honored to be asked to contribute two articles to Shannon Miller’s Lifestyle online magazine. This article is the first one that I wrote for the woman who is known as America’s Most Decorated Olympic Gymnast and the only woman to be inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame–twice. Shannon was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer in 2011 and has a strong interest in helping others who are facing a battle with cancer.
“We’ve done the biopsy and it’s cancer. We’re very sorry. The doctor will meet with you in a few minutes.”
That was the call from surgery where our sixteen-year-old son, Nick, was lying on the table. In the few seconds that it took the surgeon to call, life came to a stomach lurching stop—my husband and I were unable to think, move, or even breathe.
As someone who has worked with people going through intense challenges for over thirty years, and as a woman who has supported both her son and her husband through cancer, I know what just how difficult those first few days and hours are after hearing that you or a loved one has cancer. What happens—to your body, your mind, your emotions–when your life cracks open? How do you move forward when it seems impossible to take a breath, much less take purposeful action? I have found that two of the most critical steps you can take are to find your way through the initial shock of the diagnosis and regain your balance.
Handling the initial shock
What’s going on in that body that may seem suddenly foreign, perhaps dangerous right now? Your limbic system has gone into crisis mode, responding to the fear or anxiety that you are feeling, getting it ready to flight, fight or flee. Because of this, your frontal lobe, that place of logical thought, has been pushed to the background and you may find yourself unable to think straight or process information. Given this mental and physical state of affairs, there are three ways you can help yourself cope:
Get centered. If you are like most people, right after you have heard that the diagnosis was cancer, your shocked reaction disconnected you from an awareness of your body. You likely forgot to breathe, eat or pay attention to your surroundings—causing you to bump into things or stumble. I know I did. You have a lot of information to process and decisions to make, but before you do that, you have to get back into your body. Try these three strategies anytime you feel spacey, unfocused, or panicky:
- Breathe—Sit down with your feet flat on the ground, posture comfortable but erect. Put one of your hands on your stomach and the other over your heart. Slowly and deeply breathe, making the out-breath longer than the in-breath. When you breathe, your lower diaphragm should inflate, moving the hand that is resting on it but leaving the hand on your chest still. Repeat 5 times.
- Rub—Getting back into your body means feeling it. In a seated position, with your shoes off, shuffle your feet back and forth, feeling the friction on the bottom of your feet. Then rapidly rub your hands on your thighs, from your pelvis to your knees. Note the feeling on your hands, feet and thighs.
- Move—Go for a jog, exercise, or simply march in place. We know that movement helps decrease the stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) that have flooded your brain as well as create endorphins—the feel good hormones. Finding just a few minutes to move your body will help reduce your anxiety and help get your brain back on line.
Slow down. There are many decisions to be made when you’ve been diagnosed with cancer and you will want to give them the attention they deserve. While some of those decisions may be urgent and time-limited, most are not. You may need the time to process the information, consult with family or friends, or enlist the assistance of experts before coming to an answer that is best for you. Some things to consider:
- Ask questions–For example, you can ask Which decisions must be made now? Is it a preference, a suggestion, or a necessity to act immediately? What are the consequences of putting off the decision for 24-48 hours? What are the pros and cons of each option? (If the decision must be made immediately.) How can I get a second opinion and who can help me do that quickly? Once you’ve asked the questions, be sure to allow yourself enough time to process the information, either by yourself or with someone you trust.
- Take a break—with everything that is swirling around in your head, it can be hard to think straight. Sometimes the best decision that you can make is to not make the decision yet. Spending fifteen to twenty minutes concentrating on something other than your crisis will give the neurochemicals rushing around in your brain time to calm down so that it is easier to think through the options. Try making a cup of tea (or other hot beverage), writing out your thoughts, or talking to a friend.
- Clear your schedule—most people will understand that you’ve had a medical emergency that requires your absence. This is not the time to let your inner superwoman take charge, like my friend who accepted a new job—right after being diagnosed with breast cancer! Reschedule, say “not right now,” or defer as much as you can. You need all of your energy focused on this crisis. You are worth it!
Regaining your balance
Finding a way forward means first finding solid ground, even when everything around you is changing. It’s easy to focus on what is wobbly. Life as you have known it, can seem to be giving way to new people, strange medications, offices and treatment rooms that you’ve never seen before. Your emotions, too, may be constantly shifting—anxiety, fear, anger–all are normal….and unsettling. It is more helpful, I have found, to look for those things that steady you. Two of those anchors are finding a lifeline and choosing your mindset, so that you can find your way forward.
Find a lifeline. For many people, the automatic response to a bone-jarring shock like a cancer diagnosis is to hunker down, to isolate. While it is normal to do so initially, research has shown that significantly better outcomes for those who have a community of support. At the same time, it is important to think about what you need. Is it someone to take charge, listen to you vent, hold you or help you start to plan? If you don’t have supportive family and friends who can be available to you, consider finding a therapist, someone from your place of worship or a support group. As you decide who to call on, look for someone who:
- Will bring a positive attitude and thoughtfulness in their words or actions,
- Has good judgment,
- Can maintain confidentiality, if that is important to you,
- Understands who you are and how you want to manage this process, and
- Is compassionate and honest enough to give you feedback when you need it.
As you go further down the road, you will likely want to build a larger community of support, encompassing people who bring different perspectives, skills, and expertise than you have. But for now, this is about finding someone who will walk alongside of you through these early days. Having someone to hang on to makes the journey infinitely easier.
Choose your mindset. In the best-selling book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Viktor Frankl makes a statement that changed my life—professionally and personally. Writing about his survival in a concentration camp that took his brother, his parents and his wife, Frankl wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
With a life changing diagnosis such as cancer, it is normal to feel that you have lost control of your life. You didn’t invite cancer in and you can’t ask it to leave; it just showed up and now you have to deal with it. But I have found there is something that you still have control over—your mindset. In my work with clients across the globe, I have found that answering one question, “Who do you want to be, in this circumstance?” provides an anchor for them, something to hold on to, in the toughest of times. So, ask yourself the following questions:
- Who do I want to be?
- How do I want to get through this?
- What qualities and characteristics do I want to demonstrate, even when times get tough?
- What values do I want to embody?
Setting your mindset is also not about being some kind of super being who never gets angry or feels hopeless. It’s a positive, grounding step we can take to be our best and most authentic selves, even when nothing else seems controllable. And, if you’re like me, you will sometimes fail spectacularly. That’s ok. It’s not about being perfect. It’s about having something we can do, that is uniquely us and that no one can take away from us.
A cancer diagnosis, for you or for a loved one, feels like a body blow-it takes your breath away and can completely disorient you. You can make it through the initial days by getting more grounded and making decisions thoughtfully, rather than reactively. Reaching out for support and deciding, for yourself, what your mindset will be in the days to come, can make the difference between feeling out of control and alone and operating with a focus and from a sense of personal authority—even when you can’t change anything else.
In the next article, I will talk about handling the hard and scary stuff by learning to manage your thoughts and face your fears. I would love to hear from you in the month ahead—what would you like to know?
 Taken from “The Gift of Crisis: Finding your best self in the worst of times,” by Susan Johnson Mecca, Ph.D.
 Ozbay, F., Johnson, D. C., Dimoulas, E., Morgan, C. A., Charney, D., & Southwick, S. (2007). Social Support and Resilience to Stress: From Neurobiology to Clinical Practice. Psychiatry (Edgmont), 4(5), 35–40.
 The Gift of Crisis: Finding your best self in the worst of times
(Note: This article was recently published in Elephant Journal. Please click on the link below to access the full article)
In late September 2005, my sixteen-year-old son, Nick, sat down next to me on the couch and told me that he thought he had testicular cancer.
Knowing that Nick had a streak of hypochondriac in him, I was convinced he was being overly dramatic about some swelling in his groin.
I was wrong.
Nick was diagnosed with pre-cursor B cell lymphoma and put on a two-year protocol of chemotherapy. In a single, mind-numbing moment, our family’s priorities, conversations and just about everything else in our daily lives shifted to a single-minded focus on the survival of our child.
Our family went from one who barely used aspirin and Benadryl to one that had chemo drugs on the dinner table. It was a world no one wanted to enter and, yet, there we were—unwilling travelers on a bus ride in Hell.
Parenting a child through a life threatening illness is both scary and exhausting. Paradoxically, it is also a petri dish for rapid personal growth. The lessons that it taught me were often adopted reluctantly, with teeth gritted in resistance to their wisdom. But ultimately, what I learned changed me then and continues to guide my life today.
Here is what those years on the bus showed me:
Over 34 million people serve as unpaid caregivers for loved ones, helping them with the daily living and/or medical tasks they cannot navigate alone. One of the questions I frequently get from caregivers is how to cope better with the exhaustion and sense of helplessness that can come with managing the logistics of two lives—theirs and their loved one’s.
When I speak with them, I’m always interested in how they’ve defined that precious boundary between themselves and the one that they are caring for. Healthy relationships require some separation of space—mentally, physically, and emotionally–but the frequent crises or watchfulness that caregiving often involves can make finding that line a bit difficult. It’s all too easy for people who care to become caretakers instead of caregivers.
Consider these questions and decide if you’ve moved beyond your role of caregiver into the ultimately thankless one of caretaking.
Do you think your loved should appreciate for what you are doing for him?
Caretakers often believe that jumping in to help people will make those people love them more. After all, who doesn’t appreciate someone who has sacrificed for you? Many do, but hoping someone will value you more because of what you do for him or her can be a sign your sense of worth is too dependent on what others think—and that’s an bucket that can never stay full.
Do you find yourself getting angry or resentful at your loved one?
Frustration and irritation is common in many stressed out relationships but one early sign that you may be in a lopsided relationship can be recurring resentment. It’s is one of the surest signs I’ve found in my practices that 1) some radical self-care and/or 2) a renegotiation of the helper-helpee contract is in order.
Does your loved one get resentful when you ask her to reciprocate in some way or take on some responsibilities?
One young client shared his insight that by being “the perfect boyfriend” at the beginning of a relationship and jumping in to solve all of his love’s problems, he created a dynamic that wasn’t healthy. When he asked for some reciprocity, it seemed to her as if he had changed. And he had—he wanted a more equal relationship than the one he originally negotiated through his actions.
Do you respect your loved one?
The wisdom that helped me release an old pattern of caretaking was something a friend said. Her perspective is that when you care-take people, you send them the message that you don’t respect their ability to take care of themselves. I realized by assuming that I saw their lives more clearly than they did, I was subtly telling them I thought they were not good enough.
Are you jumping in the way of the bullet from the Universe?
When caretakers pre-solve loved ones’ problems or protect them from the consequences of their actions, my experience is that two things happen. One–the loved one doesn’t get the lesson that dealing with the issue would have taught them and continues the behavior that created the situation. The second thing that happens is that the caretaker suffers by having to handle the situation, causing stress in his or her life. The metaphor I use with my clients is to ask them to imagine that the Universe is sending a bullet – in the form of a lesson that will ultimately (if a bit painfully) help their loved one grow. When they care-take, they save their loved one from the pain, but they also take the bullet! And furthermore it didn’t save anyone from having to get the lesson another way (including, I might add, the caretaker).
Bottom line–look to the words “caretaking” and “caregiving”
Are you gifting the person you love with care? That means you are offering a present of your time or assistance without expectation of return. Or, are you taking charge or taking care of them? Sometimes the answer is hard to see. If you aren’t sure, ask a friend who you know will be honest with you. If the answer is “caretaking,” it’s time to re-negotiate the relationship!
Caregiving requires the intention of love; caretaking requires the intention of fear.
Unless you leave room for serendipity, how can the divine enter?
I believe that Spirit is all around us, not just in the brick and mortar buildings of our established religions. Consequently, I have looked for and found messages in the sudden appearance of animals, birds, numbers, friends, songs, and many other forms of Divine media. One symbol of encouragement that has meant the most to me is feathers. There is a Native American belief that finding a feather directly in front of you means that you are on your path—your actions are in alignment with your Divine spirit. More times than I can count, during those three years that my husband and son were so ill, I would look down and find a feather on my path. Although the rational, skeptical side of me (admittedly, rather a small part) could argue a number of reasons for the placement of the feather, there were times that no reasonable explanation could suffice to explain why, at that moment when I was in the most need, a large white feather, in the middle of a hot Dallas parking lot or in the midst of a busy shopping mall, would appear in front of me. Sometimes I picked the feathers up, other times I just gave thanks for the reminder that I was not alone, that God,the Universe, the Divine was with me on this journey, I was doing something right, and that I was loved.
Watching for Signs
Marci Shimoff, author of Happy for No Reason: 7 Steps to Being Happy from the Inside Out and The Chicken Soup for the Soul series, talks about the amazing number of people who have sent her stories about the signs they had received (often bluebirds and cardinals), many times in response to prayer or other need. She suggests that signs are one of the ways that we can listen to the wisdom within us that is connected to the Divine.
- Be open to the possibility that the Divine, however you imagine it, is sending you messages of encouragement and love.
- Pay attention to things that occur around you repeatedly, when they occur and the conditions under which they show up in your life.
If there is a pattern, decide what it means to you and if it feels encouraging, integrate it into your life by noticing it, journaling about it, or just giving thanks when it occurs. We all need positive reinforcement, especially in crisis. Open up to the possibility that the encouragement and reinforcement your soul needs as you traverse the crisis can come in unusual and unlikely ways.
What have been some signs of encouragement that you believe were sent to you when you needed them the most?
I had lunch yesterday with a woman I had met while her husband was going through an extremely rough recovery from cancer. They were a young married couple when he was diagnosed and she had been there, right by his side, throughout the rigorous protocol that ultimately saved his life.
We spent lunch comparing notes about what we had both gone through and learned during the medical crises that devastated our families’ lives. We talked most about letting go—moving from patient advocate, decision-maker, head of household, and holder of hope to a time when our caregiving was no longer needed. Her husband had recovered, though with some ongoing medical issues. My son was thankfully healthy and cancer free, but my husband had not survived.
Karen (not her name) and I talked about how surprisingly difficult it had been to shift from caregiver superwoman to just mom or wife. Though we admitted that we had never wanted to assume that heroine role, we both found it tough to give up the outfit. With that cape, those cool boots, and a clearly marked “S” on our chests we had discovered new strengths, resilience, and “grit” that had never been completely claimed in the past. And then there was the admiration we got, every time we jumped out of the phone booth in the service of our guys. It was hard, gut wrenching, scary work—pushing back when a treatment didn’t seem in their best interests, or sometimes just curling up next to them, trying to bring some comfort. Having people recognize both the difficulty and bravery we had to call on to do so had felt pretty good.
Sometimes it’s hard—when the crisis is over or downshifts in intensity—to let go. You’ve done everything in your power to ensure your loved one survives. The joy when they do can be tinged, surprisingly, with an almost superstitious fear that letting go of your caregiver role might lead to a return of the crisis. Taking your hands off the wheel and allowing your loved one to start driving their own lives again? You’re caught between “Finally!” and “What if they crash?”
In contrast to our concerns about the right time to let go, our guys had had no problems giving us the caregiver pink slip. They had come through their crises and were ready to move on. Karen’s husband was relishing a life that he hadn’t been sure would continue—trying out new things and challenging himself physically—often to Karen’s discomfort.
My son bought a Harley-Davidson motorcycle—a pretty clear signal to his mom that, at 23, he saw himself as an adult—legally and financially responsible for his own decisions. And although I did threaten to buy him a T-shirt that read: “I bought this Harley because childhood cancer wasn’t life threatening enough,” I got the message.
If you are trying to decide whether the time has come to release your grip on the reins of your role as caregiver, these questions might help:
Is your loved one physically and mentally ready to take on more? What are the consequences if they do and fail? How serious are those consequences? How might you mitigate those consequences?
Are there some intermediate measures that you can take to ease yourself out of that care-giving role? What conversations do you need to have with your loved one to make that happen?
And, if they believe they are ready to regain their independence, are you? If not, why not?
In many cases, there are no easy answers. Talk to friends, caring health professionals, or other people who will provide a neutral perspective. More importantly, share your concerns with your loved one. Be honest about your fears and what kinds of compromise might help you make the transition from caregiver back to spouse, parent, sibling, family member or friend.
And yes, you get to keep the outfit. It will always be there in the closet if you ever need it again.
Where did this come from? I pointed to a note someone had left in my husband Vito’s ICU unit where he was lying paralyzed. A serious case of Guillain-Barré, a neurological disease that attacks the myelin sheath around nerves, had rendered his body’s nerves useless. I had gone out to grab a quick lunch only to come back to find a yellow post-it note with some words scrawled on it.
Who left this? I asked as I re-read the quote, beginning to tear up. The words landed squarely in a well of vulnerability and need that I hadn’t yet named. Despite my outward facade of having it all handled, I really needed to hear those words. That quote meant someone believed in our family’s ability to handle this latest gut punch, even if I was feeling kind of shaky.
The ICU nurse smiled and said that Dr. Jason Litten-our son Nick’s oncologist-had dropped by. He only had a short break from his own duties, but wanted to see Vito and spend some time with him.
Jason was especially important to our family. He had been the lead on Nick’s oncology team from the moment that Nick was diagnosed at age sixteen and had seen us through some really hard times.
It was precisely that knowledge of who we were as a family and what we had gone through that made his words so powerful. He believed in us and in our ability to get through this. But even more than that – Jason held up a mirror so that we could see it ourselves – our own resilience. He came by to remind us that we had, even if we might have temporarily forgotten them, inner stores of courage, persistence, and wisdom.
What do we know about resilience?
Webster’s dictionary defines resilience as “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” For me, it means being able to get back up after a gut punch and keep moving forward, even when the way isn’t yet clear and the footsteps are still bit wobbly.
Resilience has been a research topic for many years, focusing on both children who survive traumatic childhoods and adult victims of serious crises—for example, hurricanes, cancer, bombings, and earthquakes. Researchers have puzzled over why some children and adults go on, even after the most horrific of circumstances, to lead successful, productive lives and others don’t. What makes the difference?
What creates or fosters resilience?
Jason personified one of the most important factors we’ve come to understand in creating or fostering resilience—family, caregivers, friends who surround and support us in hard times. Other factors, according to research, include a belief in one’s ability to solve problems, take action, and personal temperament. (For more on this topic, check out The Road to Resilience)
So how do you develop your own resilience or foster it in someone you love? Over the next several blogs, I’ll share some practical strategies taken from the research and my own experience. I hope you will try them out, keep the ones that work for you, and share them with others. For now, here’s the first two:
Create a community of support: I’ve written about this previously (see the blog archive) but it bears repeating. Having a team of people who guide, advise, handle logistics, or just listen is critical, not only when you are trying to survive the initial shock of a crisis. They can also help us find our inner resources and ability to endure during the crisis and afterwards, when the process of recovery begins.
Talk back to the mind monkeys: Your mind, when faced with a crisis, will do what thousands of years has evolved it to do—look for the most dangerous outcomes and respond with the thoughts and emotions those scenarios will evoke. Part of enhancing your resilience is to see the crisis as potentially solvable—maybe not all of it, but parts of it. Like the old adage goes, “How do you eat an elephant? A piece at a time.” Chew on the pieces you can solve now, rather than focusing on how huge the problem seems.
Next time-more strategies and ideas of how to build resilience in yourself or foster it in someone you love.
“The human capacity for burden is like bamboo- far more flexible than you’d ever believe at first glance.”
― Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper
Recently my client, Christine, called for an emergency session. Her business was in danger of going under and she couldn’t think straight. The mind monkeys, those fearful and critical thoughts that can chatter incessantly in our heads, were distracting her from problem solving a way out of her predicament.
When she showed up for her appointment the next day, it was obvious that she hadn’t slept well. Christine was living on fear-fueled adrenaline, unable to light anywhere long enough to see past the fear.
What’s the worst thing that could happen to you? I asked her after she brought me up to speed on what had been happening since our last appointment. Christine responded with a litany of the potential but terrifying personal and financial outcomes that had been tap dancing through her brain for the last week.
Interestingly though, as we talked through each one of those scenarios—ranging from owing a huge debt to having to stay in a loveless marriage—we uncovered some important truths hidden underneath all of the awful possibilities that her mind had been busily fabricating:
She had an amazing work ethic and an engaging, positive personality—she could get a job and work off the debt if necessary.
Her parents and friends were very supportive and would give her a place to live, if she needed it.
She had some options and resources she hadn’t explored yet that might allow her to sell her business and clear her debt.
She’d been through a lot worse and survived. She could make it through this crisis
Christine had been so caught up in her fears that she was “living” in an outcome that might not happen. She was imagining what it would be like to have to have that much debt or stay married to someone she no longer loved or respected. You can imagine how horrifying her imagined scenarios were.
So, I reminded her of one of the most important strategies that, in a crisis, can help you go from bad to better.
Don’t live in an unwanted outcome before you get there—Our thoughts like to take us into hypothetical and disastrous scenarios and pretend that they are real. But the reality is, you don’t know for sure what will happen until it does. You are wasting your time and scaring yourself by spending time visualizing yourself in a situation that probably won’t happen! When you find your thoughts drifting into potential but negative outcomes, just ask yourself the question, “Do I know for a fact that this will happen?” If the answer is no, then redirect your thoughts.
Three ways to redirect your thoughts are:
Meditate—The process of breathing slowly in and out and emptying your mind each time a thought shows up strengthens the muscle that allows us to ignore unhelpful thoughts.
Journal—Writing down your thoughts helps you look at them more objectively.
- Read—Find a book that is engaging and let it distract you.
- Ask yourself, “what can I do right now that will help?” and then go do it.
Leave the mind monkeys to their own devices. And whatever you do, don’t feed them!
Next week, I will cover one of the greatest strategies for moving from bad to better—Find the Positive. Until next time remember Byron Katie’s great quote:
“I love what I think, and I’m never tempted to believe it.”
In my last blog, “How to Avoid Going From Bad To Worse in a Crisis” I called out four actions that can make your current crisis even more dire than it already is. Now here are some ideas to that can make your situation more manageable:
Get grounded before you make any decisions. Spend some time getting back in your body. Then solicit input and take some time thinking about all of the implications of the decisions that you are about to make. Unless an immediate, life threatening situation exists, there is usually time to sleep on a choice or get the perspective that a bit of distance or a second opinion can bring. For more ideas on how to get grounded, check out Six Ways to Find Firm Ground in a Crisis .
Reach out and let others in. Find a way to connect with those people who will support you in the ways that you need during these tough times. And while you may have your own “first responders”–those people who are tuned into you and your life, ready and willing to help—spend some time thinking about what other skills, expertise, or counsel will be most helpful to you given the circumstances you are facing. For example, a client going through a divorce found that she needed more than just a lawyer and her usual circle of friends. Adelle found that a community of women who had survived and even thrived post divorce was also critical to her recovery. Once you’ve strategized about who you need, find a way to bring that into your life, Build a Community of Support that Rocks suggests ten ways to do so.
Manage the mind monkeys. I recently read What Good is Meditation in a Plane Crash? about Allan Lokos, founder of the Community Meditation Center in NYC. Allan shared his experience surviving and healing from severe burns sustained in a plane crash. He credited his years of meditating with his ability to manage, without pain killers, the excruciating pain that burn victims experience. With the discipline he learned through meditation, Allan was able to release his focus from the pain rather than letting it overwhelm him.
And, while most of us do not have that level of experience to draw on during a crisis, there are some effective ways, in addition to meditation, to prevent negative thoughts from taking over the majority of our waking moments.
My favorite one is to schedule the mind monkeys, the buddhist term for the chattering of our thoughts. This entails deciding exactly how much time you are going to spend each day with those thoughts—especially the ones that seem unending, threatening or critical when you are facing difficult times. For some of my clients, they chose to entertain those ideas only during the hour that they are exercising. For one woman who had only infrequent communication from her family living in a war torn country, it was the ten minutes before her prayer time each day. Once you’ve decided what your schedule is, whenever the thoughts come up outside of that time, remind yourself that those thoughts have an appointment with you but it’s not right now! Each time you push them away, you gain more control.
The next blog, Going From Bad to Better, Part 2, will cover a few more ways to manage the mind monkeys as well as practical ways to enjoy more positive thoughts and emotions—even in a crisis!
If you have any questions or comments, please send them my way. I look forward to hearing from you.
“No matter how bad things are, you can always make things worse.”
But, as Randy, author of the book“The Last Lecture,” also pointed out, “at the same time, it is often within your power to make them better.”
When things are going badly, what do people do that makes things worse?
They move too quickly—Quick resolution of an issue can be a wonderful thing. Our cinema action heroes are known for their lightning fast responses to terrible situations. And while they rarely make situations worse in the movies, in real life making a decision when tired, overwhelmed, or scared often does.
They isolate—Research on coping behaviors in a severe crisis points out the danger in retreating from support. In isolation, fears often grow as does depression and loneliness. While it is normal to pull in to process or deal with the flood of emotions and information that can come our way during a crisis, staying in that bunker of withdrawal can ultimately make the tough times even more difficult to navigate.
They let the negative overwhelm everything else. When a disaster occurs in our lives, we can be engulfed by the emotions, logistics, and disruption—none of which is likely to feel positive. Yet spending our time thinking or talking about how unfair the situation is yields only more negative feelings. For several months, I had the improbable opportunity to take both my husband and son to their respective weekly chemotherapy treatments. As I sat in the waiting room with my husband, I noticed how rarely the adult cancer patients made contact with one another other than the barest of civilities. All of their energy seemed to be taken up by their illness; the mood was somber, quiet, and depressing. In contrast, the children’s oncology waiting room was full of young cancer patients, also with bald heads, missing limbs, and hooked up to IVs. Yet most of them played games, created art with the adult volunteers, giggled, and explored the world around them. Unlike the majority of the adults I observed, they found a way to engage in with each other, and with life, despite their diagnosis.
Where, then, is our power to make them better? It’s not like we chose the crises or tough times.
Pausch shared the story of their first child’s birth—a panic stricken, impossibly fast drive to the hospital, his wife in danger of going into shock, emergency surgery, and terrified first time parents. Yet despite the crisis, Randy recognized that he and his wife still had some power in their trajectories through that trauma.
Dylan’s birth was a reminder to me of the roles we get to play in our destinies. Jai and I could have made things worse by falling into pieces. She could have gotten so hysterical that she’d thrown herself into shock. I could have been so stricken that I’d have been no help in the operating room.
Through the whole ordeal, I don’t think we ever said to each other: “This isn’t fair.” We just kept going. We recognized that there were things we could do that might help the outcome in positive ways. ..and we did them. Without saying it in words, our attitude was, “Let’s saddle up and ride.”
The Last Lecture
So how do you make things better rather than worse?
I’ll cover these in more detail in my next blog, “Going From Bad to Better” but for now, here are a few ideas to get you started:
Get grounded before you make any decisions—find the space between the crisis and action before you decide what to do next.
Reach out and let others in—decide who can help you navigate this challenge well and who you need to keep at arm’s length for awhile.
Manage the mind monkeys—be conscious of the negative, critical, and terrifying thoughts that your brain may be throwing your way. And, as Byron Katie would add, don’t be willing to believe everything you think.
Make your brain velcro for the positive rather than the negative—stay attuned to moments of beauty, acts of kindness, and any moments, however brief, of peace.