July: Finding Meaning in Change

July 9, 2021

Cultivating post-traumatic growth as we heal

Last month we wrote about crossing the threshold in our healing journey, accepting change in our lives, and finding traction along our path. This month we will write about living with changed conditions and how our beliefs shape our path.

Some days I feel sprung with potential, as an Olympic sprint runner crouched at the starting line, well-trained, capable, excited to run the race. Then there are days when I stay in my PJs all day, not answering phone calls or emails, leaving my phone on do not disturb. But increasingly, I am finding a balanced step, like the recent backpacking trip I took; I feel enduring, full of strength, and mindful of my body and surroundings. This is where I want to exist, this is where I need to exist – in that state of balanced calm.

I realized on this backpacking trip how often I over-extend my step to keep up with someone else’s pace. It may seem like a small, unimportant observation, but when I apply this simple thought to my life experience, I notice a pattern – how I have literally over-extended myself to my own detriment. I have tried to keep up with others rather than taking the time to find my own pace. I have tried living up to the expectations of others for so long, that I am conditioned to do so. What else am I conditioned to believe? What have I conditioned myself to believe?

After I realized this, I changed my pace to fit my stride. I took what I learned in last semester’s adult ballet classes and applied it to finding balance and grace on the trail. I had such an incredibly profound experience on this trip, a fundamental shift in my beliefs about what I am capable of. I validated my own sense of survivorship.

During this (incredible) trip I had plenty of time to think about the changes I have experienced and explore my depth of feelings. I allowed myself time to feel the expansive nature of my awareness – how I can focus in on my breath and how I automatically sense for danger all around. And I found that centered pause of “now”.

A fundamental shift
How have I arrived here? It certainly was not overnight, and it certainly was not easy. To use a banking metaphor, I have been making daily deposits in my personal account of self -improvement, accumulating compounding interest over time. In past sessions, I have shared my experiences in therapy and some of the tools I have picked up along the way. In this session, I would like to describe a few of the coping tools I have use and how I have found meaning in reconstructing my life.
I needed to do something different to shake myself out of old behaviors, habits, and thought patterns, so I chose to cultivate change. I began observing my thoughts, feelings, and beliefs about my experience. I acknowledged my limiting beliefs and the conditioned beliefs imposed on my experience by others.

I started with small, easy changes. I changed the way I soaped up in the shower. I drank less coffee with a new plant-based creamer. I stopped eating sweets after 7 PM. I exercised a little bit every day. I downloaded a beginner’s meditation app and completed the program twice. I found I do well with small increments of daily meditation and regular exercise, checking a little box to hold myself accountable and celebrating the fact that I am consistently doing this for myself.

The right tool for the job makes a world of difference…

Meditation I surrendered. I found a meditation app for beginners or anyone struggling with meditation, habit forming/breaking, and mindfulness. For 42 days I used the app to meditate daily, regularly observing and experiencing my body, my thoughts, and feelings (I completed the 21-day program twice). This is a huge deal for me, as I have struggled with meditation in the past. Now, I use meditation as a helpful tool for engraining a daily mindfulness practice, creating new healthy habits, and rewiring my neural structure.
I enjoy meditation now that I know that it is perfectly natural for the brain to think of ALL the things. I feel empowered and capable of meditating daily, rather than intimidated and wondering if I am doing it right. Other helpful tools for challenging limiting and conditioned beliefs are cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is a form of talk therapy, and the CTFAR Model which I learned about in a wellness program.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a way of changing one’s thinking by using awareness to observe emotions, behaviors, thoughts, and physical sensations. Limiting beliefs are unhelpful thinking patterns that we tell ourselves, or that we have been told and repeat to ourselves. For instance, all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralization, ruminating, disqualifying the positive, jumping to conclusions, mind-reading, catastrophizing or minimizing, and “should” statements. The confirmation bias validates these thoughts and perpetuates the limiting and condition belies.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a tool to label and challenge these thoughts and beliefs, cope with the emotions they can elicit, and identify triggering behaviors or events. Sessions with a therapist specializing in CBT can provide results over time and generally focus on current events rather than childhood experiences. I learned to use this tool outside of therapy. When I catch myself following these rather common and unhelpful thinking patterns, I actively challenge these thoughts by asking myself questions about the trigger, labeling the unhelpful thought patterns, and checking my emotional reaction. This process allows me space to feel and time to think.

CTFAR Model Another tool to cope with limiting beliefs and manage stress is the CTFAR Model, which is an acronym for C – Circumstance, T – Thoughts, F – Feelings, A – Actions, and R – Results. I use this tool when I am triggered or having a panic attack. I find this tool also useful for coping with deeply rooted limiting beliefs and conditioning.

Using this tool, I can give myself time and space to respond, instead of immediately reacting to triggers. I observe my circumstances, looking at the facts of the situation – what is happening. I acknowledge my thoughts – my over-reactions and my reasonable responses. This is when I can empower myself. This is when I can choose what thoughts I need to cultivate. I engage my emotions to help connect to my body and depth of feeling. We, humans, respond most to our feelings, our gut instincts. I have an abyss of emotions and can feel many ways at once. It takes time and space to sort all this out. Often, I find myself journaling about my feelings to put my intertwined thoughts and feelings on the page, to separate them out and make sense of it all. Next, I decide my course of action or inaction. Do I want to open my mouth and insert my foot? Or instead, do I want to listen and respond with well-formed thoughts? Choosing my battles has been quite the lesson to learn. Finally, I consider the results. How will I feel when this is all said and done? What will I impact with my words if is said … right now?

Celebrating consistency and healing trauma
Often, I have said healing is work, and these tools are hefty ones. I need to use every ounce of my self-discipline and pat myself on the back to keep a consistent practice, and all this work is yielding results. I am experimenting with new conditions as I continue to rewire my traumatized brain and body and heal. I am engraining healthy choices by changing my behaviors and creating new habits. I continue to take the next smallest step, just a little bit each day. Most importantly, I celebrate that, today, I am on this path and that I can share it with you. Today, I am taking the next smallest step, knowing I can navigate the path before me, one step at a time.

Prompt 1: What limiting beliefs have you experienced? Which are internal? And which are external? Meaning, what do you believe about yourself, as opposed to what other people think about your experience? How do you counter limiting beliefs? What limiting beliefs have you overcome or navigated because of your experience with cancer?

Prompt 2: What questions do you have about your experience? What changes are obvious to you, but are oblivious to others? How do you make others aware of those changes? How do you counteract feeling invisible? What do you do to feel seen?

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