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How to Turn Negative Emotions into Positive Actions

by Margaret Christopher, PhD, MPH, LSW, ACSW

Wellness image

Close your eyes, breathe in, and let that breath gather up all the worry and anxiety. Then breathe out, and imagine that the anxiety and worry is leaving you.

It happened. You received the dreaded diagnosis, and you are being initiated into a club of cancer survivors that you never expected to be in. It is a club that you will be in for the rest of your life.

Coping with the diagnosis is an ongoing and ever-changing process. Embrace it. You might be surprised by some of the unique challenges and life changes a cancer diagnosis can bring to you and to your family. You might even enjoy some of them once you get the cancer-related anxiety and depression under control.

Everyone probably has a few cancer cells floating around in their system. Normally, the immune system keeps these cells under control. When they get out of control, and a cancer diagnosis is received, anxiety levels go up. Again, embrace it. Anxiety can be a good thing.

Anxiety is a normal reaction that forces a person to pay attention to something that is perceived as a threat to safety and well-being. Anxiety generates energy; but if it goes on for too long, it can generate exhaustion. The challenge for those who are living with cancer is to learn how to channel the energy that anxiety generates into something constructive. Ideally, it should be channeled into making some of the lifestyle changes needed to manage or defeat the illness. Make sure that you work with your healthcare providers as you do this.

Anxiety generates energy; but if it goes on for too long, it can generate exhaustion.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Margaret Christopher

These lifestyle changes can be difficult to cope with at first, especially when they include medical treatments and recovery from these treatments. As you or your loved one goes through medical treatments, you sometimes need to turn the anxiety off. Worrying about a medical treatment and its consequences is not constructive. Find the best oncology specialists, and give your anxiety and worry to them. They are trained to use these emotions to do what they need to do to fight your cancer.

Visualize them doing this. Close your eyes, breathe in to a count of four, and let that breath gather up all the worry and anxiety. Breathe out to a count of four, and imagine that the anxiety and worry is leaving you and going to those who will use it to fight cancer. Know that your healthcare team is a part of that fight. Repeat this simple breathing and visualization process at least four times in sequence. The slow, deep breathing might be just what your body needs.

Some people like to incorporate prayer and spirituality into this simple breathing exercise. Normally, when people pray, they visualize the positive outcomes they want. There is a growing body of research that strongly suggests this can actually help a person in a number of physical and emotional ways. It can put a person into a physical state that is similar to a restful sleep. In fact, this is a great thing to do when anxiety interferes with sleep.

Coping with cancer-related depression is more difficult than coping with the anxiety. Depression frequently comes from anger turned inward. It’s okay to feel angry about a cancer diagnosis. It’s even okay to feel angry with your healthcare providers, especially those who appear to be insensitive or incompetent. The first step in coping with cancer-related depression is to learn how to recognize and express the anger. Sometimes, it can be released in ways that lead to needed changes within yourself and your environment. The important thing is to release it in a way that is constructive.

Depression can also come from feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and powerlessness. These feelings arise from the negative things we tell ourselves. We can chase away these uncomfortable feelings by replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. Use a journal or voice recorder to record your positive thoughts. Find your positive thoughts by embracing every aspect of your life and by recognizing that every experience provides new learning opportunities and challenges. Challenges help us become more resilient. Resilience is a good thing. Cancer survivors are among the most resilient people on the planet.

Fill your mind with thoughts about the good things in life. Fill your time working on the things that really matter to you. Think about the values and beliefs you want to pass on to others, and come up with a constructive and creative way to accomplish this. Fill your heart with the joy that comes from waking up each morning and knowing that this is your day. Love the adventure we call “life.”

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Dr. Margaret Christopher is an associate professor in the department of Social Work at the California University of Pennsylvania in California, PA.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2010.