Serial optimists need not bother reading this post as they are naturally wired to think positively. Some of us however, fall into the realist or pessimist/half empty category.
If I had a fiver for everytime I was told to think positively this year (post-Brexit permitting), I could afford to go on a decent European city break. It is an easy comment to make, often by former cancer patients, as it worked for them. However it paints a false picture of real life and is clearly impossible to achieve every day.
You rarely, if at all, get told to think positively by a health professional, particularly a medic. These people have seen and know too much to even dare. If you could read the mind of the doctor in front of you, what they would secretly be thinking is “Look I’ll do my best, the odds seem good but who the hell really knows, medicine is not an exact science”.
What’s it all about?
In my opinion, saying ‘think positive’ to a newly diagnosed cancer patient is the equivalent of saying ‘Cheer up’ to a person with depression. Easy to say when you are in the light but is meaningless when you are in a very dark place and lack the resources and ability to find the lightswitch.
Yes, I understand the thinking behind cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) but when I hear ‘think positive’ it makes what is left of my stomach turn over. It can send my brain into a crisis situation where it was constantly thinking WTF!
Dealing with cancer is hard enough but to know how to even approach putting a positive spin on the volume of thoughts, you’ve got me there, I give in. Often with CBT I end up trying to hoodwink myself and that in itself is ridiculous – the thought has to make sense and needs the evidence to back it up. In the end, enough time goes by after the ‘think positive’ comment is made for me to forget about it and be distracted by something else and that is my point. Distraction can and does work as the brain can only really deal with one thing at a time.
Do not Feel Under pressure to see the glass half full
If you think you can think positively and want to, then go for it, that is not what I am saying. I would turn on that switch if I could. My mind likes to do things differently.
What is the alternative?
There is clearly no benefit in catastrophising minute after minute, hour after hour about what might happen or indeed what is going to happen. This leaves you with no power at all and is horrible and extremely draining. Is it better to be in blissful optimistic ignorance though? There is a balance.
If you must worry – then put aside a set period of time (30 minutes) to let your thoughts run wild but then you must stop and start doing something else – anything to keep that busy mind occupied. Worries do come and go as you move through treatment so the initial ones should go completely or change into something else. Thankfully worries are not set in stone.
Mind managing strategies
Here are a few helpful things, in no particular order, to help manage those ‘what if’ convos in your head.
1. Get and stay informed: If you are someone who likes to know beforehand – finding out what you are dealing with is by far the best thing you can do to rein in your worries. Write down your questions and ask your health professionals for the answers. Get in touch with other patients and ask them about their experiences. However do the latter with caution – some people have had a rougher time than others and this could have the opposite effect.
2. Learn something new: This is a pure, hard core distraction technique. You will probably end up being well versed with your cancer but learning something new (not connected with health) keeps the brain stimulated even though it may be a struggle to get started. Avoid the big or unachievable like an academic course – daily use of Apps like duolingo for languages are fab. I learned to draw this year and it really helped me visualise my thoughts. I can not recommend this enough. If you don’t fancy drawing, journaling is shown to be good and scoring yourself out of 10 everyday is also helpful. Practicing mindfulness is also a good way to try to settle down your mind. The Headspace app is good as you can build up your time starting with only a few minutes.
3. Family and friends: Again support from real humans is an incredibly important part of getting through difficult times. Hearing about what a fab time others are having and their exotic holidays can be hard but interaction with others can also take your mind off your own situation.
4. Video games: My saving grace this year has been a video game called Criminal Case. Research studies have shown that playing video games can relieve chronic pain (google video games and chronic pain if you don’t believe me). This worked for me when my nerve pain was at its worse. Other games I played were Luminosity brain training and Spider Solitaire.
5. Read the books you have always wanted to read and binge watch those TV box sets: I struggled with the attention to read at times but it is something I love and getting lost in a book is magical. I have managed to read quite a few books this year. Binge watching a number of series is something we rarely do but have done so this year. Notable ones that kept us busy were Lewis, Bosch and Rev.
6. Get out in the open for a stroll: Moving about post-op is difficult as the energy may not be there, you maybe in pain and it can be a real effort generally, however getting out even for a short constitutional can make all the difference. Besides it is hard to really worry and walk at the same time. A walk clears your head and makes you feel you have achieved something. You can reward yourself with an afternoon nap when you are done.
7. Get out and see something new: Also not rocket science but if you want to see a show or visit somewhere and you have the energy and the cash – get on and do it. Anything to get yourself out of the house. Maggies centres or centres like Beechwood do extremely valuable work. Having a couple of treatments or counselling sessions booked in gives you a valuable anchor to your week and something to look forward to. Therapists at the above places have met numerous cancer patients and have more creative and sensitive ways of expressing themselves.
In conclusion then, the basis of the above is essentially filling your time with more productive stuff than thinking about death and disaster. Mark Twain summed it up by saying “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” Give that man a coconut.