(audio version of blog)
A serious health diagnosis can come out the blue and disrupt our lives. This is true of chronic or life-threatening illness, like cancer major health events, such as a heart attack or a stroke; or sudden serious injuries. They can disturb or limit all aspects of our lives. With this sudden change comes a lot of different emotions that can be contradictory or frightening. This blog aims to help you start examining these emotions and will suggest ways of managing them.
Why do I have so many different emotions?
It can feel like a wave of mixed emotions has crashed over you, from anger and shock to deep despair and grief. Or you might experience dissociation, a feeling of numbness, denial or a complete lack of control. These waves can take you to some dark places and have a profound effect on your mental health. Poor mental health alongside a serious physical health condition often creates issues with adhering to care plans, taking medication or attending clinic appointments.
Your emotional reaction will be personal. Each one of us is different and various factors will affect your reaction and emotions, such as: age; family situation; previous health issues and the amount of support you have.
Are my emotions normal?
It would be impossible to summarise all the feeling that come with a diagnosis, but here are some common ones:
Frustration and anger, asking ‘why me?’ and what you have done to deserve this
Blaming yourself or others in your past or present
Starting to see your identity as only your diagnosis, rather than just one of many aspects that make up you
Denial or refusal to accept the diagnosis, or complete numbness
Feeling powerless and unable to see any future other than the worst-case scenario
Experiencing a lack of control, a feeling of unfairness or being unable to find a sense of meaning
Grieving the loss of your health and regrets at not taking advantage of it when you could
All our emotions happen for a reason, even if you feel like you are not reacting the way you ‘should’, don’t let this make you feel like you are doing it ‘wrong’! They are your emotions and they are valid.
Do I just have to just accept the difficult emotions?
A negative response to a diagnosis is justifiable and to be expected. These emotions can be difficult but it is important to remember that you don’t need to suppress them. You need to feel your emotions in order to move past them and you will be able to accept some in time. However, you could sense that these feelings are developing into either depression or anxiety. Depression and anxiety are treatable and, while it can feel like a low priority when managing a physical health diagnosis, your mental state can determine how well you engage with treatment.
10 things to keep in mind when managing your emotions around a diagnosis
Below are some tips to consider. It is by no means an exhaustive list, however, it could be a start towards taking control of your diagnosis and putting together a care plan. Feel free to use this list to start conversations with loved ones or your primary care provider.
Let people help: Allowing people the opportunity to offer support can be hard, particularly if you have always been independent or the one who cares for others. Remember, you are not a burden, accept the help offered from those who care about you.
See people face to face: Different diagnoses may mean finding different ways of connecting. Try and mix up the type of communication: video calls, letters, or emails can be fun and practical, however, face to face contact is also important. This could be hard (not least because of Covid-19), but if it is safe, try and stay connected physically.
Look out for depression: Depression is an issue for some people with a physical health diagnosis. Over a third of people with chronic diseases get depressed. This can stop you engaging in healthy routines. Read up on the signs for depression and speak to your doctor or GP if you feel you’re starting to get depressed.
Seek counselling: Counselling is not just for people who have depression or anxiety. You have a lot to deal with, both practically and emotionally, and counselling can provide a much-needed breathing space. Giving yourself weekly therapy sessions can be a big act of self-care.
Fill your time with purpose: Finding purpose is important when looking after your mental health. Things you could try:
- A hobby you used to enjoy or one you are interested in but have never previously tried. Community events or activities, both with people physically and online.
- Explore the arts, get out into nature or sign up to an evening course in something fun and manageable.
- Going for a walk, exercising or just getting some daylight can be a huge comfort and boost your serotonin levels.
Understand your medication: Remembering to take one pill a day is tough, managing ten pills a day can be daunting. Knowing what they are, what they are for and what problems to watch out for is key when adhering to a medical routine. Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist can help supply you with this drug information.
Don’t overdo the research: The internet is a great source of information and it can be tempting to throw yourself into research about your diagnosis. It is worth remembering that not all information on the internet will be from trustworthy sources. On top of this, remember to take breaks from researching. You won’t be able to read everything out there all at once, so pace yourself to avoid it becoming overwhelming.
Take agency for your everyday care: Doctors and nurses will be incredible allies in your treatment, but don’t make them the sole source of your healthcare. Find things you can manage, be that eating nutritious foods, monitoring your own blood pressure or keeping physically or mentally active. Keeping on top of your health every day can help you spot any major changes that could lead to crucial early interventions, as well as being a great way to cope with your diagnosis and help you to lead your fullest life.
Take stock of the support you need: Practical tools can help, from meditation apps on your phone, to journaling or organising a diary. Also, make a note of support you may need in an emotional crisis, like The Samaritans helpline, favourite walks or pieces of music that ground you. Seeking distraction is also a good form of support. Not all of your selfcare needs to be proactive; bingeing box sets, playing video games, etc. can provide a much-needed break.
Find support groups: Connecting with other people who have the same or similar diagnoses can be a massive help. Not only will they understand what you are going through but they are likely to have plenty of tips or life hacks to help with everyday challenges.
Tackling a serious physical health diagnosis can be scary. I really want you to hear that you are not alone. Staying connected is incredibly important, and this will look different for each person. If one thing doesn’t work for you then experiment with something else. Use the networks you have to think about the different ways that you can stay connected and engaged. If your networks don’t feel like the right place to do this, then finding a therapist might be a good step to exploring your emotions and making support plans.
Further support (UK)
These links are up-to-date at the time of publishing. They are external links and I am not responsible for any information or advice given by these organisations. If you are in crisis, danger or with suicidal thoughts call 999
Macmillan Cancer Support: 0808 808 00 00 - 7 days a week 8am - 8pm. Cancer support
Stroke Association Helpline: 0303 3033 100 If you or a family member has had a Stroke
Headway information: 0808 800 2244 support for people affected by a brain injury
Brain and Spine Foundation: 0808 808 1000 provides info on range of brain and spine conditions
After Trauma website with support after physical trauma https://www.aftertrauma.org
NHS Emergency line for the ambulance service: 999
NHS Non-emergency NHS service: 111
The Samaritans Helpline: 116 123 - 24hrs a day 7 days a week if you are in distress
Helpline directory where you can search by condition or diagnosis https://helplines.org/helplines/