Christopher Schimming, M.D.
Speaking of HealthCognitive overload: When processing information becomes a problemMarch 18, 2022
At some moments in life, time seems to stand still. This could occur when you gaze at a beautiful vista, are mesmerized by a song or hear the words "I love you" for the first time. When reflecting on that time, you may remember details vividly and the realization that life would be different moving forward.
The apparent stretching of time can occur during terrible news and after a loved one's death or during a national tragedy. It could occur if you receive an unexpected serious health diagnosis, like being told you have cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease or diabetes.
Having a serious, potentially life-threatening illness will affect every aspect of your life. You may feel afraid, angry or overwhelmed. You may have feelings of loss over changes to your independence, privacy, health and expected future. You may worry about how it will affect your relationships, finances, work and the activities you enjoy. All these feelings are normal.
Every person responds differently to a serious health diagnosis, and each situation is unique.
Here are 8 common ways to approach a difficult diagnosis that can lower anxiety and feelings of loss while improving your coping skills:
1. Get the facts about your health condition.
Your health care team can provide or recommend reputable resources that will explain your diagnosis and treatment options. Knowledge is power, and understanding the facts will help you have two-way conversations with your health care team about your care.
Write down questions and concerns for your health care team, and bring your list to each appointment.
2. Express your feelings.
Denial, fear, anxiety and anger are normal emotions when presented with bad news. Give yourself time to process these emotions. Share your feelings with family members and friends, or consider seeking professional help. You also can try writing down your thoughts in a journal.
3. Set up a support network.
Often friends and family are happy to prepare meals, provide transportation or help with household chores. Accepting help allows those who care about you to contribute during a difficult time. It also lowers the burden and stress on caregivers and other family members.
Your support network also could include others who have the same diagnosis. It can help to hear their personal stories, coping strategies and firsthand experience with treatment options. Look for organized support groups in your community, such as those hosted by the Alzheimer's Association, American Cancer Society, American Heart Association or local public health departments. Many support groups have virtual meeting options, as well.
4. Focus on healthy habits.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can improve your energy level. Choose a healthy diet consisting of a variety of foods and get adequate rest to help you manage stress and fatigue. Exercise and participating in enjoyable activities also may help.
Talk with your health care team about the best exercise options for you.
5. Set realistic goals.
Expecting too much of yourself can lead to frustration and feelings of failure. Decide whether you can accomplish the tasks and activities you plan to include in your day. Learn to say no to things when you have no time or energy.
6. Concentrate on what brings you meaning and purpose.
Many people have found that receiving a serious health diagnosis helped bring into focus the people and things that are most important in their lives. Find time for the people and activities that are personally rewarding and meaningful. Stay connected, or reconnect, with family and friends, especially those who have a positive, optimistic outlook on life. Volunteer work or helping someone in need can remind you that you can continue to make a difference.
7. Focus on your abilities, not limitations.
Try not to compare your situation with the way things used to be. This can produce "all-or-nothing thinking" — the idea that if you cannot do something exactly as before you can no longer do it at all.
Modify or change your activities instead. For example, you may not be able to play 18 holes of golf any longer, but you could still enjoy nine holes while riding a golf cart. Or consider reducing your work hours or finding a different job if your previous routine is a challenge.
8. Use various coping strategies.
What comforted you through rough times before your diagnosis is likely to ease your worries now, whether that's a close friend, religious leader or a favorite activity that recharges you.
Turn to these comforts now, but also be open to trying new coping strategies like:
- Practicing meditation or deep breathing exercises
- Writing in a journal
- Seeking professional mental health help
- Taking part in mentally stimulating activities, like reading or crossword puzzles
- Leaning on your faith or spirituality
- Remaining involved with work and leisure activities as much as you can
Adopting these healthy coping strategies can make your life more enjoyable and satisfying. Talk with your health care team if you have questions about your condition and what to expect before, during and after treatment.