Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
“I’m really scared about my diagnosis. I’m trying not to be, but I am.”
A client said this to me just last week. He had just been diagnosed with a chronic condition. At first he was surprised at the news, actually shocked. Soon the shock gave way to fear.
Clients with a new medical diagnosis have said something like this to me many, many times over the years. And here’s how I respond:
First, news of a medical diagnosis brings up all kinds of emotions. A diagnosis means change, and humans don’t do well with making changes in their life—especially changes they didn’t ask for. A medical diagnosis also brings up uncertainty, and humans really don’t do well with not knowing what’s ahead. This can all be pretty scary. So it’s normal to be fearful about a new diagnosis. In fact, I would wonder why anyone facing a new medical diagnosis wouldn’t be feeling some fear.
And second, I always emphasize with my clients that they don’t have to try to not feel how they feel. Just the opposite. Let yourself feel your feelings, all of them.
Let fear in—then do something about it!
Having said all that, what can you do when the fear factor kicks in? Not sure? Well, here are some ideas:
Don’t fight it. Fear is just a feeling. Let it out and it loses the power to control you. Hold it in and it just gets bigger and bigger until it threatens to overwhelm you, or turns into anger that sneaks out all over the place. Don’t be afraid to be afraid. Let it in.
Flood the fear with facts. Without facts, our minds make up stories to fill in the gaps. Often these stories are all about the worst possible scenario. So get reliable information to understand your diagnosis and its treatment. Knowledge is power.
Get a routine together. When you’re newly diagnosed, learning how to take care of yourself can feel like one big mystery. And as you know, mysteries can be scary. So sit down with your doctor and get specific about what you need to be doing every day. Iron out the details not only of your treatment regimen but what else you need to be doing for yourself. The sooner you have this in place, the more secure you will feel about your health.
Get support. Sit down and talk about what’s going on and how you’re feeling. Talk to someone like a friend or family member who can listen without judging your feelings or trying to tell you what to do. Vent if you need to.
Find a community. There is a lot to be said for being in touch with people who are traveling the same path—to share experiences and advice, to give each other encouragement, and to inspire you. Who better understands what you’re dealing with? Right here is a great place to start!
Distract yourself. Do things you enjoy to help take your mind off any fearful thoughts that might be bouncing around in your head. Watch TV. Go for a walk with a friend. Do some window shopping. Try not to spend too much time alone with your thoughts.
Nurture yourself. Take things easy. Do what you can to avoid stress. Look at your priorities, with an eye toward spending more time on things that help you to feel calm and less time on what stresses you out. Sure, you may have to go to work every day. But you can build more balance in your life outside of work. Lowering your stress can improve your health. Is it time to say no more often?
Watch your self-talk. We spend our waking hours in an ongoing dialogue in our minds. We notice, we evaluate, we judge. We instruct ourselves on how to react to what we see around us. We also evaluate how well we think we performed. Are you being tough on yourself? Make a conscious effort to be kind and encouraging toward yourself. Start with, “I am facing a new medical diagnosis, and that’s a lot. I’m doing the best I can.”
Act “as if.” Visualize what you think your best self would be like in the face of a medical diagnosis. Would your best self be: An assertive patient, asking questions and strategizing? Staying optimistic, realistic but also hopeful? Helping friends and family to understand the diagnosis and cope with their own fears? I often encourage my clients to act “as if”—even if they aren’t feeling it—and let the emotions catch up later. This is like telling yourself, “I know you are afraid, but we are pushing forward anyway.” A gentle push . . .
Take things one day at a time. That means leave the crystal ball in the closet where it belongs. You can’t predict the future. Equally important, you can’t control what happens in the future. That is one of the biggest lessons that chronic conditions teach us. Give up the “what if” and “what might be” thinking. That just leads to more fear. Stay focused on what you have to do every day to stay as healthy as possible.
Scared about your new diagnosis? Fear is a normal reaction. Instead of fighting the fear, go with the flow. Free yourself to take steps to cope with fear in a healthy way. It’s your choice!
What helps you deal with worries about your condition? Share your ideas by commenting below.