Cancer: How to Ride The Emotional Roller Coaster
Author: Belinda Hawkins Date Posted: 30 June 2015
I’m sorry, it’s cancer.
And with those words, we’re catapulted onto the emotional roller coaster that comes with a cancer diagnosis.
Most people don’t realise there is such a strong correlation between our emotions and our survival. Research shows our psychological wellbeing is associated with decreased rates of death and lowers the risk of cancer recurrence. Not to mention improved quality of life.
So with emotional health such an important aspect of healing, how do we manage those difficult emotions?
First let’s understand what emotions really are.
There are a few important things to learn here. The first is that the emotional part of our brain, the limbic system, is where we process things at an emotional level. This part of us is quite separate from our frontal lobe where we do our thinking. Thinking is conscious. Emotional processing is subconscious. I like to think of our feelings as those emotions we become aware of consciously. Secondly our emotions correlate with chemicals that are released in to our bodies. Oxytocin for instance is released when we experience feelings of love. Adrenalin is released when we experience fear. Cortisol is released when we are chronically stressed. Ever realised you are doing your own internal chemotherapy before? Thirdly we know from the work of Dr Candace Pert that our immune cells have receptors for these chemicals of emotion. Perhaps that’s why we see in research that feelings such as loss, bereavement and loneliness cause a reduction in Natural Killer cells, the very cells you need to protect yourself against cancer.
As radiation oncologist Dr Carl Simonton said, ‘it’s not whether the mind and emotions are important in cancer treatment, but how best to utilise them’.
So how do you master your emotions in this emotional minefield?
I believe these steps are a good place to start:
- Acknowledge how you feel without judgement – what you feel is neither good nor bad, it just is. And when you realise that feelings are just a bunch of chemicals it’s hard to judge that, isn’t it. They’re just chemicals.
- Give yourself permission to feel what you feel for as long as you need to. When we resist or deny how we feel, uncomfortable emotions tend to stick around longer. It’s just one of those laws of nature.
- Express how you feel. If it helps talk about it. Or have a good cry. Or a good scream. Or whack a pillow. However you do it, as long as it’s safe for you and others, express how you feel. Don’t bottle things up. Allow the e-motion (energy in motion) to flow. You might be surprised at how much better you feel. And how much clearer things can be.
- Observe how you feel. Where in your body do you feel the emotion? Is it heavy or light? On a scale of 1-10 where would you rate it? Can you make the feeling stronger or lessen it? By stepping back and observing how we feel we can often diffuse the energy of it.
- Practise relaxation. Whatever helps you to relax practise this and practise often. Breathing, meditation, prayer, there are many ways. Dr Herbert Benson has demonstrated without a doubt that eliciting the relaxation response creates positive health benefits. Not only reducing cortisol, but also the way we express our genes in healthier patterns. So learn some good relaxation techniques. Make it a priority.
But what if despite all the expression, observation and relaxation those uncomfortable feelings still persist? That’s when you might need some outside help.
- If it’s a conscious level problem, then jump on it. Don’t let it fester. If you’re having problems with your teenagers or your finances or your work then talk to someone. A conscious level counsellor or psychologist can be worth their weight in gold.
But what if no amount of will power or conscious level effort will shift those emotions?
That’s an indication that you are experiencing negative subconscious emotion.
- When a person is unable to change unwanted feelings, responses or behaviours through will power, conscious effort or ordinary medical and psychological procedures, it is usually an indication that those symptoms result from negative subconscious emotion. And in this situation talking about it can actually make the problem worse. Instead, a therapist trained in how to help you resolve emotions at the subconscious level where emotions are created is essential. I have found therapists trained in P.S.H. therapy (psh.org.au) to be of incredible help both personally and professionally. Many people are surprised how gentle and easy it can be to release emotional issues they’ve been dealing with for a long time.
So in a nutshell, don’t mess with your emotional health. Take action. Get help. Use the right tool for the job. Clean out your emotional closet. Jump on emotional issues as they arise. And practise those feelings that make you feel good – relaxation, laughter, love. You’ll do wonders for your immune system.
Belinda Hawkins (BMedSc) is a Canberra based P.S.H. therapist. After experiencing cancer first hand, Belinda’s gift is in helping people to negotiate the emotional roller coaster that comes with a cancer diagnosis. Through her own experience, Belinda understands the ups and downs and the joy that can come when we take the time to truly heal our feelings. You can contact Belinda on 0409 619 639. www.embracingchemo.com.au