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Surviving the Storm

How to Attain Emotional Healing in Turbulent Times

by Gregory W. Lester, PhD

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A cancer diagnosis is a transformational event, in other words, an event that changes everything. It changes how we feel, how we think, and how we see ourselves, others, and even life itself. But a cancer diagnosis isn’t just a transformational event, it’s an unpleasant transformational event – one that you didn’t expect, you don’t like, and that produces changes you wish hadn’t happened.

Coping with an unpleasant transformational event, like a cancer diagnosis, has long been identified as one of the most challenging and difficult tasks in human life. The name given to successfully dealing with such an event is healing. In this context, healing does not mean cure. Cure is getting rid of something unpleasant. Healing is feeling whole and complete and living as fully and normally as possible, even if that unpleasant matter still exists. Healing is successfully adjusting to the difficult changes produced by an unpleasant transformational event. So, with an event like a cancer diagnosis, how does one heal?

What do you do during that hurricane in your head? You do what anyone does during a hurricane – you hang on.

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Dr. Gregory Lester

First, the bad news.
There are no mental tricks or psychological sleights-of-hand that make the adjustment process quick, easy, or painless. In thirty years of working as a psychologist, I have never seen any type of mental gyration that makes something like a cancer diagnosis easy, simple, or painless. The reason for this is simple: our brains go haywire when we’re confronted with an unpleasant transformational event, and no mental trick is adequate to the task of preventing or short-circuiting the mental hurricane that is set off between our ears when we hear words like “you have cancer.”

My first piece of advice is forget about any mental tricks you’ve heard of, like forced positive thinking. When your brain is in the mental storm of reacting to something like a cancer diagnosis, its natural pattern is to scream bloody murder and go directly to worst-case scenarios. This is the mental version of an immune response, and it is the natural reaction to a negative transformational event. There’s just no way around it – your brain is going to turn flip-flops and wave in front of your face every scary, upsetting, and unpleasant possibility it can imagine. Neither positive thinking nor any related psychological tricks will prevent this.

So what do you do during that hurricane in your head? You do what anyone does during a hurricane – you hang on. There’s no special technique, no magic cure; you just do whatever helps you hang on through the emotional waves that hit you during the storm. You talk to people, you seek support, you read and learn about your diagnosis, you breathe deeply, you take soothing walks, you hug your children, you listen to your cat purr. You hang on.

Now, the good news.
The human spirit is wonderfully adaptive and adjusts itself successfully to many difficult things, including cancer diagnosis. So you can heal. But how? Well, it isn’t fancy, and it isn’t complicated. It’s based on one simple, familiar, mundane principle: just get used to it.

The most healing thing we can do for ourselves is to get beyond ourselves.

Getting used to something is our colloquial name for returning to normalcy after an unpleasant transformational event. When we’re used to something, it doesn’t mean we’re thrilled about it or would choose it if we had the choice; it means that it doesn’t upset us so much anymore. It means that we’ve pretty much gone back to a normal life, even if it’s a new normal life. But how do you do that?

♦ With Time For the most part, time is what allows us to get used to something. In psychology, we call this the process of absorbing or accepting something. Whatever we call it, the bottom line is with time, sooner or later our mental hurricane recedes and we gradually find ourselves living a new, normal life.

♦ Through Other People Our connection to people, our attachment to them, seeing reflected in their eyes that we are still okay, that we are still us, that we are still valuable, and that we are still lovable helps calm the mental storm and enables us to live our new-normal life.

♦ By Living a Life Worth Living What does this mean? It means living in a way that allows us to be able to say on our deathbed, “The life I led was worthwhile; it was a good thing.” How do we do that? We do it by following the spirit of Karl Menninger, the renown psychiatrist, who when asked what someone should do if they feel a breakdown coming on said, “They should lock their house, go to the other side of town, and find someone they can help.”

The point is that the most healing thing we can do for ourselves is to get beyond ourselves, to lose ourselves into something outside of us. One way to do that is by helping others, but it is far from the only way. We can lose ourselves in our work, our families, our hobbies, our causes, or our faith. What we choose doesn’t matter. The healing doesn’t come from what we lose ourselves in; it comes from the act of losing ourselves. We can call this being devoted, or absorbed, or committed, or enthralled, but the simple name for losing ourselves into something outside of ourselves is love. And it is love that most allows us to heal.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Dr. Gregory Lester is a psychologist who has been in practice for over 25 years. He also holds a university faculty position, maintains a clinical practice, conducts ongoing research, presents numerous lectures each year, and has authored five books. For more on Dr. Lester, visit drgreglester.com.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2009.

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