While life is never certain, the feeling of uncertainty following a cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming. What can you do to maintain your mental well-being during times of uncertainty? Lauren Liverman, LCSW, an oncology social worker at Piedmont Athens Regional, shares how to cultivate resilience during challenging circumstances.
How uncertainty can affect your mental health
“Most people thrive on routine,” says Liverman. “There’s comfort in familiarity. Habits and predictable patterns create a sense of safety. Uncertainty can feel like an absence of safety.”
Left unchecked, feelings of uncertainty can negatively affect your mental health.
“Unmanaged uncertainty can lead to anxiety and/or depression,” she says. “Nervousness can be paralyzing and can then keep us from engaging with the people and activities that help us feel calmer. That can lead to a sense of isolation and feeling down.”
How to cope with uncertainty
While you may not be able to make uncertainty go away, there are steps you can take to cope.
“We can learn to cope with uncertainty so we can still be productive in our lives, experience good things, spend time with family and continue to work,” she says.
1. Meet with a social worker or counselor
A social worker or counselor can help you work through problem-solving, which can help alleviate some uncertainty.
“Coping with cancer is hard and stressful for the person going through treatment, their caregivers and anyone who loves them,” says Liverman. “Counseling can help validate this difficult experience and provide you with strategies to cope.”
She says a few sessions with a clinical social worker or counselor can help you get a grasp on what’s happening.
“We help our clients look at their reality and find more effective ways of thinking about their reality,” she says.
Liverman also uses cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques to help her clients manage their thought patterns.
“It’s useful for people with anxiety and depression and is very effective in the oncology setting,” she says. “We use techniques from CBT to help people manage more intrusive thoughts. Ruminating on certain thoughts may not be helpful and can lead to behaviors like withdrawing from loved ones or avoiding activities that bring them joy. I coach people on how they can modify how they think about their circumstances so that some of their suffering can be alleviated and they can maximize their quality of life.”
She shares this example:
“Someone may think, ‘I have this diagnosis and I’m not going to get better.’ If that’s their predominant thought and it’s making them sad, anxious and withdrawn, we look at how they can shift their thinking,” she explains. “Instead, we might work on the thought of, ‘I’m taking all of the treatments my physician recommends and I’m hoping for as much quality of life as possible.’”
Liverman says taking control of your thoughts can be empowering.
“When you learn to manage your thought process, you’ll feel more empowered about your circumstances rather than being at the mercy of your thoughts,” she says.
2. Maintain a gratitude practice
“There is a lot of neurobiology research that shows we can create new neural pathways in the brain,” says Liverman. “We do that through repetition.”
She suggests having a nightly ritual of writing down three things you’re grateful for that day.
“When you’re in the habit of doing this before bed, you’re feeding your mind with positive thoughts at the end of the day and setting yourself up for more restful sleep,” says Liverman.
The more you practice positive thinking, the stronger those neural pathways become and the more likely you’ll automatically choose a positive perspective rather than an anxiety- or depression-producing one, she adds.
3. Join a supportive community
“Joining a support group can be highly beneficial,” says Liverman. “Social connections are vital to mental and emotional health.”
Members of your group can help validate your feelings and offer wisdom, encouragement and support.
4. Practice relaxation and mindfulness techniques
These activities can help stabilize your mood and calm your mind.
5. Do something to take your mind off your worries
It can also be helpful to do something that takes your mind off your worries, says Liverman. Try watching a funny or lighthearted show or movie, reading a book you enjoy or spending time on a favorite hobby.
When to seek professional support
“Pay attention to how your mental and emotional state is interfering with your day-to-day living,” says Liverman.
Here are some signs you should talk to a counselor or social worker:
You’re struggling to get your work done.
You find yourself distracted and unable to be present with loved ones.
You’re having significant difficulty sleeping.
Your eating habits have changed dramatically.
The things you usually do to cope are no longer helping.
With the right support system and tools, you can learn to cope and even thrive during seasons of uncertainty.
Learn more ways to reduce stress and improve your well-being.