Part of coping is taking good care of your mental health. Here's what experts recommend.

By Samantha Lauriello
October 26, 2018

Getting sick is a super organized person’s worst nightmare: as much as you might try, there’s just no way to plan for it. That applies to all illnesses, but when it’s something major like cancer, you face the challenge of reorganizing your entire life, not just the coming week. That struggle can feel almost as overwhelming as the illness itself.

“Think of a scary diagnosis as a trauma event from a mental health perspective,” says Gail Saltz, MD, Health contributing psychology editor. “It’s being confronted with everything from thoughts about mortality to chronic suffering.” That’s a lot to handle, which is why giving yourself time to process the diagnosis and the life changes you'll need to make is crucial to managing your illness.

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A national survey from Eli Lilly and Company pharmaceuticals found that nine out of 10 people experienced a new or worsened emotional or mental health condition because of an unsettling diagnosis—with anxiety (61%), insomnia (56%), and depression (56%) the most common. In response, Lilly created the Thriver Movement, which aims to increase the understanding of the daily impact of metastatic breast cancer and help those affected.

Self-care becomes especially important during a medical crisis, and if you’ve recently been given a diagnosis that flipped your life upside down, we’ve got you covered. These tips may seem like a small lift compared to what you’re going through, but they can help you feel centered, positive, and ready to battle.

Practice mindfulness

You've heard about the benefits of being mindful. But it's an especially helpful coping tactic when a scary diagnosis comes down—and your brain automatically switches into future focus and you can't stop imagining terrifying worst-case scenarios. Yet when you only think of what might happen way down the road, you miss out on everything going on right in front of you. As a result, your anxiety and sleeplessness can increase, and it can be harder to make smart day-to-day decisions. 

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“Mindfulness is about how things look, sound, smell, taste, and feel to you right now,” Dr. Saltz says. It takes time to master the art of being in the moment, but get in the habit of setting aside 15 or 20 minutes to be mindful each day. You'll soon replace toxic what-if thoughts with productive and realistic ones, she adds.

To get started, download a meditation app like Headspace, Calm, or Inscape on your phone. These programs can guide you through meditations tailored to your situation, say for dealing with anxiety or managing pain. You can also select a duration, allowing you to practice for just three or five minutes on busy days and 15 or 20 on others.

Stick to your routine

Some diagnoses require treatments that might not let you keep up with your usual daily life, Dr. Saltz says. But if it’s possible to maintain a few elements of your typical schedule, that can help tremendously—by keeping you feeling like yourself and in touch with the people and places that give you comfort and security. 

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We get it, some days it might feel like everything would be easier if you could just stay in bed and run through worst-case scenarios in your head. But try your best to stay engaged with everyday life, such as your desk job or spin class, even if you have to cut back from going every day to a few times a week.

“It’s important to remember that a cancer diagnosis does not define you,” says Marleen Meyers, MD, oncologist at NYU Langone Medical Center. “It’s only one part of who you are right now.”

Give yourself permission to cry

Keeping the powerful emotions generated by a scary diagnosis to yourself is self-defeating; at some point as you cope with your illness, you won't be able to hold them in anymore. “Don’t be afraid to cry,” Dr. Meyers says. “The sorrow about the change in your health will come out sometime, and the sooner, the better.” 

It’s not easy to experience such intense feelings, and you might have to experiment with different ways to let them out. If crying isn't your thing, try talking through your fears and concerns with family or friends, or write things down in a journal. If that overwhelms you, try writing out your worries and then tucking the piece of paper out of sight, Dr. Saltz says. This can help interrupt and calm anxious thoughts.

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Treat yourself to therapy

How you react to and cope with a serious diagnosis can be very dependent on your past experiences, says Dr. Saltz. To make sure you're dealing with things in a productive way, it's a good idea to check in with a therapist or counselor who treats people going through a medical crisis. Seeing a professional can help you gain a deeper understanding of why you’re feeling the way you feel, and it can make it easier to face things head-on.

Therapy is a safe space to address other issues caused by your diagnosis—for example, body image fears if you're facing the possibility of a mastectomy. “These things can be helped sometimes with therapy because you might not be aware of how much of your reaction is being informed by individual issues,” Dr. Saltz says.

Find support with other survivors

“Talking with other people who are in a similar boat can allow you to feel understood in a way that others might not make you feel,” Dr. Saltz says. It can be very comforting to know you’re not the only one who’s been in this overwhelming situation, and people who are further along in the process can give you advice for managing the beginning.

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On the other hand, some people might find it difficult to hear stories about others' experiences with the disease; it could compound your anxieties. Dr. Saltz says everyone is different, and if you go to group sessions only to find they aren't working for you, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with backing out. Many people do find this kind of discussion extremely helpful, though, and you might not know unless you try.

Dedicate time to be with loved ones

This is the time to surround yourself with family members and friends who you trust and know will be supportive. Dr. Saltz says that patients sometimes think they’re burdening other people with their situation—but that’s not true. Your loved ones want to help you as much as they can, and you know that if the roles were reversed, you would be right there reassuring them that you've got their back.

Dr. Saltz suggests scheduling regular visits with those in your support network. Maybe every other Monday go to yoga with your best friend, and every other Thursday grab coffee with your sister. During this chapter in your life, feeling connected is more important than ever, she says. Use this experience as an excuse to visit with those who matter most to you—and hey, the visits don't have to slow down when you're healed. 

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