Specializing in Anxiety Treatment, Authenticity, and Grief Therapy
Working for the American Cancer Society was responsible for my change of career from computing to counseling in 1999. One of the requirements to working at ACS was for either a close family member or yourself needed to have been treated for cancer. 3 grandparents, an uncle, and my mother all had received treatment for different types of cancer, some successfully, so I sadly met that requirement. In the year I spent talking with cancer patients and their family members I learned just how tumultuous this journey was. It didn’t just happen in my family. Cancer impacts many. So while I have not been diagnosed myself, I have accompanied others as they are tossed about by the rigors of treatment, tests, and recovery.
If you are frightened, that’s a normal reaction to an extraordinary experience. If you are angry, again, that’s a healthy reaction to the process of passing through misery to restoration. Much of what is experienced in the grief process applies here for patient and for family/friends. What’s lost is significant. One thing most cancer patients share is the experience of cancer having changed them in fundamental ways.
Major Life Transitions
A transition is the internal emotional/psychological experience that accompanies change. For example, when you move to a new city, that is a change in residence. The disorientation and doubt, and possibly the excitement and hope that you experience while dealing with boxes and maps is the internal process of shifting from an old to a new mindset while the house becomes home.
Shifting mindsets requires you to let go of things/people/habits you’ve kept to feel safe that become barriers to progress. Added to the work of unpacking and developing new routines it the grief process. You may have wanted this change and looked forward to it, so the anger, sadness, numb feelings, regret and longing surprise and confuse you. But, rest assured. They are part of the normal process of major life transition. Talking about what you're going through helps.
Grieving is the emotional and physical expression of loss. Some of the emotions people feel during the grief process include anger, despair, yearning, denial, shock, sadness, confusion, disbelief, guilt and relief. It is a complex process that takes time to feel your way through. Trying to repress or not feel unpleasant emotions doesn’t make them go away. While your mind may not acknowledge them, your body will. Some of the physical symptoms associated with grief include crying, breathlessness, frequent sighing, headaches, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, stomach or back pain, general body aches, and lethargy. As Churchill is noted as saying, “the only way out is through”. You must feel your way through this very important process.
Every loss is experienced differently. If you’ve been laid off before, the second layoff will not follow the same pattern. Same with relationship loss. If you are less distraught by your father’s passing than you are by your mother’s that does not mean you loved your father less. It means the relationship and bond you had with your father was different from the one you had with mom.
Talking helps organize confusing and conflicting thoughts and feelings so that they are easier to bear.
Our minds are primarily designed to help us survive another day and so keep us alert to any threats in the environment. Thus, our thinking is biased toward the negative as a means of protection. Without any effort, thoughts can drift toward negative outcomes and we can scare ourselves into preparing for the worst particularly if we are stressed. Extreme apprehension and worry are actually a normal reaction to stressful situations. But when that frame of mind is unremitting and overthinking becomes part of your daily regimen, you may benefit from learning different ways to break the worry cycle and relax.
Anxiety manifests in different forms. There’s the everyday variety in which worry dominates your thinking for a period of time and then there are more complex manifestations of anxiety, such as:
A panic attack unexpected and sudden experiences of intense fear accompanied by a racing heart, sweating, shaking, or rapid shallow. Panic Disorder is present when the sufferer has multiple recurrent, panic attacks.
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder is when the mind looks in any direction and sees threat.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is an anxiety disorder that the TV show Monk made visible in which the sufferer feels intense distress if prevented from completing what to others may appear a needless act like washing your hands repeatedly every hour. People diagnosed with OCD have recurring, unwanted thoughts, ideas or sensations (obsessions) that drive to do something repeatedly (compulsions). I do not have experience treating OCD.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder affects some people who are exposed to a traumatic event while others exposed to the same event are unaffected. Sufferers continue to have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended.
Social Phobia is experienced as the intense fear of being judged, negatively evaluated, or rejected in a social or performance situation.
Specific Phobia is when the mind zeros in on a specific threat, say spiders, and becomes overly focused and emotions escalate to intense levels when encountering the specific threat.
Stifler is a style of relating to people and to yourself that minimizes conflict while maximizing your sense of resentment and disappointment. Years of repressing your thoughts, beliefs, preferences, desires, etc. can lead you to forget what you like, want, need or even hope for. What would motivate you to repress these really important and interesting facets of yourself? Perhaps you live in an environment where being different or simply being visible make you a target for violent or ostracism. Or, you may have been ridiculed for expressing yourself and thus learned to keep those messy personal bits hidden. Stifling is not about being shy. It’s about consciously and concertedly not speaking up or revealing yourself. Keep this up and your personality starts to recede as you take on the characteristics of the demanding or dominating others in your life.
Pleaser is a style of relating to people and yourself that requires a form of mind reading and anticipation that keeps you focused on others while ignoring yourself. You are motivated to assume this draining stance because you think pleasing others is what will make them like you and want to treat you well. By pleasing them, you can avoid being alone or lonely. The problem is, with this approach, you give all the power and control to other people. That means few of your needs/desires get met because you fear asking for something will cause the other person to go away or tell you no. If you don’t ask for your wants or needs to be met, the other person will not know they exist. Mind reading is only possible in the movies. Neither you nor the person you are interacting with have the ability to know thoughts without speaking them. Consequently, like the Stifler, resentment builds because give and take are out of balance in your relationship, since you are the only one focused on pleasing.
The flip-side of Stifling and Pleasing would seem to be Controlling, but really controlling is just another form of giving up your power and focusing on someone else’s needs while ignoring your own. Resentment and disappointment end up being part of style as well because the focus is on the other person and rather than ask for what you need when you need it, you suffer in silence feeling unappreciated and exhausted. What motivates those who end up controlling is an unspoken lack of trust that others will follow through or do things the ‘right way’. This person is mostly concerned with avoiding negative outcomes and since letting go and allowing the other person to do things differently, the Controller has to get involved and direct the show.
What each style has in common is the habit of taking responsibility for things that actually belong to other people. In other words, a co-dependent style of relating is present. There are more healthy ways to interact with people; ways that require you to speak up for yourself and share who you are and what’s important to you. When you live in this more visible and direct way, you have a better chance of experiencing satisfaction and fulfillment.
What comes up most often in session are struggles with anxiety, the desire to be more genuine, and difficulty processing loss of various kinds. Most of the people I support manage their lives fairly well, but when a big change enters the picture, their circuits become overloaded, and they seek a neutral guide to help them make sense of what’s happening.
Big changes are called Major Life Transitions, which include a variety of positive and negative events like promotion/retirement, graduation, empty nest, new career, relocation, divorce/breakup, job loss, serious illness, or death of a family member. Cancer, in particular, is a serious illness I have years of experience supporting.
Change often sparks anxiety and is accompanied by the need to let go of what once was. Why not take advantage of the change process by making choices that infuse your life with more authenticity? Get Real.