There are many ways to cope in a time of crisis, and no single “right” way. Personality influences how we respond to challenges. For example, those of us who tend to be optimistic in outlook may experience less stress or not anticipate the worst. We cope with a problem by facing it head on in an attempt to master it. But those of us who tend to be pessimistic or anxiously cautious often cope by letting off steam and sometimes find it hard to manage our own anxiety or distress. We often rely on external support to help us cope with distress.
Some of us don’t like ambiguity so want to solve problems right away. Others need more time to adjust to a new reality. Some gather information. Others prefer not to know. Some of us strive for independence. Others rely on those around them. Denial, distractions, humor, prayer, exercise—all are valid, if they work for you. And what works one day might not work the next, so it’s good to have a few other approaches to fall back on. There are two broad approaches we can take to help us cope – we can change what we do in response to a stressful situation, or we can change the way we think about it.
Coping by Doing
What we do influences how we feel. A classic example is sleep. Getting a good night’s rest helps us function better the next day, which allows us to do a better job of solving problems. It’s a physical thing we do to help us cope. Similarly, exercise releases endorphins, which create a sense of well-being that can last for hours. When the fatigue of cancer sets in, it’s hard to imagine going for a run or climbing a hill, but even a short walk can help. Sometimes as little as ten minutes, preferably outside on a sunny day, is all you need. Gardening, housework, sports and more formal exercise routines can all help. They may even improve your sleep. Watching your diet to be sure you are feeding your brain and keeping your body healthy while minimizing nicotine, caffeine and alcohol can also help bring clarity to the problem.
Other things we can do to help us cope include being social, defining a purpose, expressing gratitude and laughing or using humor. By nature, we are social creatures and tend to thrive when we are close to other people, be they family, friends or colleagues. In fact, the more social networks we have, the more resilient we seem to be.
Change Your Expression
Defining a sense of purpose, whether grand or ordinary, can help you focus your energy in a positive way. Maybe you want to be of service to others while you deal with your stress, or maybe you just want to get the kids off to school on time every day. Being able to use your unique combination of strengths and talents can contribute to feelings of accomplishment and overall well-being.
Similarly, taking time to reflect on the positive side of things and finding ways to express gratitude, can help us shift our thought patterns. Some people find that keeping a journal, writing down the things that they are grateful for every week no matter how small, helps them stay in the moment and release their anxiety. It can also help you see the current situation in balance with your life as a whole, which often gets pushed aside when you’re overwhelmed by a crisis.
Using humor or finding a lighter perspective in dealing with a challenging situation is another way to reduce stress. While there is nothing funny about having cancer, there is well documented evidence that laughter actually lowers the level of stress hormones and helps diffuse negative emotions. Watch a rom-com, scroll through silly dog photos on Instagram, invite a loved one to tickle you. Every little giggle will help.
Coping by Thinking
The flip side of the “doing” approach is the “thinking” approach—using what we know about ourselves to help us think through and manage the crisis. Problem-solving, prioritizing, and distracting ourselves help us to deal with the big one staring us in the face. While we can’t eliminate the cancer stress, are there other worries and responsibilities we can reduce or eliminate to allow us to better cope? Can we reframe the problem or adjust our standards to make things more manageable?
Problem-solving means clearly identifying the problem, brainstorming to generate a list of possible solutions, evaluating the pros and cons of each and choosing the option that is most rewarding and feasible. And while the whole cancer ordeal may feel like a problem, breaking it down into smaller issues may make it more solvable. Conflicts between your cancer treatment schedule and work demands is a different problem to solve than treatment side effects interfering with your ability to work. Solving either may require a conversation with your medical team and your boss, but the solution may be very different.
Change Your Schedule
Many of us find that trying to maintain a “normal” routine while adding in the demands of treatment is overwhelming. One approach is prioritization to make best use of limited energy. You can prioritize by type of task, delegating those that others could do, or prioritize by deadline, taking it one day at a time. Breaking things down into bite-sized pieces and focusing on what has to be managed immediately, rather than looking at the whole ordeal, makes cancer, or any big project, seem more manageable.
Distraction is also a great tool when we’re confronted with a distressing situation that we can’t change. Activities that provide pleasure or an opportunity for mastery can be a major source of comfort. Some find work and interfacing with colleagues keeps their minds engaged while for others, socializing with friends and family taps into the positive feelings associated with being “normal.” Even the simplest tasks and routines, like walking the dog or completing the morning chores, can create enough divergence to allow our minds to rest from the constant stress.
Mind Body Coping
Take a deep breath. Just breathe. Relax. We’ve all heard that advice. Turns out, it’s really good guidance for dealing with stress and brings together the thinking and the doing. How can you help yourself relax?
Self-soothing activities that focus on the five senses help us live in our bodies and enjoy a break from what’s going on in our minds. Looking at a beautiful scene or listening to music can evoke a sense of calm. Smelling fresh bread, savoring a piece of chocolate or taking a warm bath are all ways to signal to the body to let go of anxiety. While these strategies won’t make the underlying issue go away, they are restorative, helping you better deal with the stress when you return to it.
Massage is another body therapy that effects the mind. Not only does it feel good, but studies at Memorial Sloan Kettering have shown that it reduces pain, fatigue and anxiety in cancer patients. Prayer and meditation, whether Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist or some other form, kindle a relaxation response that quiets the body, reduces stress and promotes healing. Concentrating on the repetitive sounds of prayer focuses the mind and dissolves the mind-body connection. Studies show it lowers your heart rate, reduces blood pressure and settles your nervous system.
Change Your Focus
Similarly, mindfulness is a way to bring attention to what is happening in the moment without judgment or reflection and has been proven to help regulate the stress response. Yoga, progressive relaxation, guided imagery are all practices that encourage mindfulness and help turn down the level of stress hormones in the brain. Acknowledging our thoughts and releasing them is a useful way to become unstuck from difficult emotions. There are free websites and apps to help you learn and practice these techniques at home, and many cancer centers offer classes and group sessions.
If one way of coping isn’t working, try another and another until you find the coping practices that work for you. Over time, you’ll be better able to handle life’s stresses and have a greater capacity to recover from setbacks, face fears, and maintain hope. And, people who cope well suffer less stress and anxiety, so there is less wear and tear on your body and brain. But if your stress levels continue to climb, consider seeking professional help. Many cancer treatment programs offer psycho-social support, including one-on-one counseling, individual peer mentoring programs and support groups. And there are national organizations to help as well:
Cancer Support Community provides professional programs of emotional support, education and hope for people impacted by cancer at no charge so that no one faces cancer alone and offers a cancer support helpline.
Cancer Careoffers counseling, support groups, education and financial assistance for those affected by cancer.