Mental Health Awareness Month: Accepting Unconscious LimitationsMay 11, 2023
When you first experience a cancer diagnosis–or any type of trauma–it can feel as though you have been hit by a stun gun. You move through the necessary processes robotically, and while you complete tasks, most individuals unconsciously hold feelings at bay to simply get through it. The experience is akin to grief or loss and tends to follow a pattern of waves that wash over patients unexpectedly. These sudden-onset emotions can be challenging, but it is vital to honor them. Read on for a few insights on how to cope with this emotional process in a way that centers your mental health.
We handle as much as we can handle at any given time.
One of the most important things you can do for your mental health is to understand and assess your own unconscious limitations. As I often tell our patients, we handle as much as we can handle at any given time. Accepting your personal capacity and working it is critical to your mental health.
Give yourself permission to emote.
As a society, we promote emotional masking. When people ask how we are, there is pressure to behave as though everything is fine, even when it is not. Moreover, when individuals are honest about their feelings or cry openly, the people who receive that honesty have a tendency to say things like “oh, she’s not doing well.” We collectively mistake appropriate emotional expression for weakness when really, it is a display of strength.
Our societal perception of what it is to handle something well is not rooted in any clinical mental health data. In fact, what looks to some like handling things “well” often amounts to a failure to handle them at all! It is much healthier to release that internal pressure in small increments, like an old-fashioned pressure cooker or a soda bottle that’s been shaken up, than to let the pressure build until you explode.
Physical and emotional restoration do not necessarily run on the same schedule.
Patients often come to me with the same dilemma. They believed themselves to have processed their trauma, and then some precipitating incident, like a doctor’s appointment, causes a disruptive, emotional response.
Cancer treatment and reconstruction and emotional processing may run on parallel tracks, but they do not necessarily proceed at the same rate. The physical track may be complete while the emotional track is stalled somewhere. This disconnect can be exacerbated by the people around you, who believe you to be “done” with the cancer journey. They may be dismissive, because you look restored and well.
This delayed processing is extremely common. Patients can be so focused on survival that their brains do not give them the opportunity to process their emotional experiences until after they feel physically restored. NYBRA’s Patient Empowerment Program is open-ended for this reason. Patients are always welcome to return to the practice and seek support from me and other patients, no matter how much time has passed. If you are feeling emotional at any point after your recovery, I urge you to reach out and seek support.
Any advice or tools shared in this series or on our site is not intended as a substitute for individualized, professional mental health care. While online resources are valuable and friends and family can be of significant support, it is important to be open to seeking a neutral professional who can assist you in processing your emotions and experiences productively. If you find yourself working through prolonged episodes of fatigue or sleep disturbances; persistent feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, or guilt or disinterest in things you once enjoyed, it is particularly important to consider counseling. Remember that seeking help is a mark of strength and often the first step in making healthy changes. Please reach out to a trusted medical provider to discuss how you have been feeling.