March: Coping with Stress and Change

Hello Writers, spring is in the air…

And for better or for worse, change is all around. Like the cycling of the seasons, change has become an expected part of life. Along our journey, we learn to lean into change and accept uncertainty. Our experience informs us that not all things go as we plan. We have learned how to adapt to incredible challenges as they arrive, yet still, be genuine to our deepest emotions.

As in gardens, we can plant our seeds and tend our soil, but we still have to pull the weeds and watch out for the slugs. We can tend our metaphoric mental garden as we tend to real gardens, with diligence and mindful monitoring.

Exploring The Hero’s Journey – Resistance to Change
I grieve the parts of myself that I felt I lost. Sometimes I find myself mulling over how much I have changed because of cancer. Getting lost wondering how things may have been different if I had not been diagnosed. I become frustrated with myself when I feel things used to be easier or less challenging before cancer. I get mentally stuck thinking that I am less able to do something or unable to handle life’s challenges, as well as I did before my diagnosis.  

At times, coping with the fall out of cancer has been physically and mentally challenging. My “new normal” includes heightened levels of anxiety with panic and post-traumatic stress. From the tension that comes with how my mind leaps from one worst-case scenario to the next, to the spinning sensations of overwhelm. It can be draining to constantly question my capabilities while trying to counter-balance my feelings of inadequacy with a healthy sense of my genuine potential.

It can be more than a little disheartening to wonder if things will ever get back to “the way they used to be”. These feelings are understandably normal responses to an abnormal situation.

But then I realize, I do not want to go back to the way things used to be.

Post-traumatic Growth – “Sometimes the only way out is through”

I am continually observing and learning how stress affects my body and paying attention to my warning signs of physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral stress. Since my diagnosis, I’ve recognized that my baseline stress response has been in a constant state of fight-or-flight activation for a large part of my life. My diagnosis kicked this sympathetic nervous system response into overdrive, a normal psychological and emotional response to this deeply disturbing event.

“The way things used to be” was really living in denial and avoiding deeper issues triggered by my cancer diagnosis. Expecting myself to return to “the way things used to be” was limiting my healing process. Denying my trauma was perpetuating my limiting beliefs and causing chronic stress. I thought that I needed to focus on positivity and living in the moment, but I was forcing a narrative that was not addressing deeper issues.

Healing is Work!
I reviewed my personal expectations, beliefs, values, and attitudes. I stepped back and observed my thoughts with mindfulness, instead of self-criticism. I learned to give myself the same compassion I show others. I reached out for professional help from therapy and psychoncology. I joined peer support groups to be surrounded by safe and trustworthy people going through similar experiences. I learned new ways to cope with chronic stress. I made adjustments to my daily routines to take time for what I need. I developed new practices and cultivated healthier habits. And I learned I can trust in help from allies when I need it.  I accepted that some things need to change and that there are some things that will always be a fundamental part of who I am, from which I can draw internal strength.  I created a new relationship with myself and my difficult past, so I could heal my present and cope with the stress that comes with change.

For me, this is way easier said than done and it takes constant practice! And I mean constant practice and a bit of gentle self-discipline. I know that with practice I will cultivate a responsive mindset, rather than reactive, to stress. In this state of mindfulness, I can observe my inner dialogue and conditioned beliefs without judgment, adaptively monitoring my thoughts and feelings to return place of meditative calm.  

This month we will write about coping with stress that comes with change. We all have experienced resistance to change in different ways. We hold on to what we know, comforted by the familiar, challenged by how hard it is to change. But as we’ve learned, sometimes we have to make changes in our lives to heal. 

Prompt 1: What did you believe cancer would change about you, your relationships, your future? Have any of those fears manifested or come true? How? What do you feel would be different, good or bad, had you not been diagnosed with cancer?

Prompt 2: What did you refuse to let cancer change about you? What haven’t you lost? If anything, what have you gained? How have you survived with change?

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