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  • Writer's pictureKim Horner

Dealing with an extra helping of stress

Updated: Mar 31, 2020

Anyone who faces a high risk of cancer already knows what it's like to live with uncertainty. And now, the COVID-19 pandemic has added more stress over the unknown.

Dr. Karen Hurley PhD, psychologist from the Cleveland Clinic and expert on psychosocial issues related to hereditary cancer risk, offered great suggestions during "A Second Helping of Stress: Coping with hereditary cancer during the COVID-19 pandemic," webinar today sponsored by Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered (FORCE).

"One of most important things in dealing with uncertainty, which you’ve already had to address, is to think about things as being neither bigger nor smaller than they are," Hurley said. "We have a reality to deal with that is pretty scary, pretty uncertain. To make it bigger than it is, by your mind racing ahead to worst-case scenarios, can add to your stress."

Hurley added that minimizing the situation or being told "at least you're not sick," can also make things worse or invalidate your feelings.

Although our instinct is often to distract or comfort ourselves (with food, TV or anything else), Dr. Hurley recommended trying to sit with your feelings. She compared this to the instructions for drivers to steer into, rather than away from, a skid.

"Driving into the skid means accepting the anxiety you're feeling for what it is and experiencing the fluttery feeling in your stomach," Hurley said. "It may not be realistic to say that all your fear or anxiety is going to go away." But by acknowledging it and making sure we neither make things bigger nor smaller than they are, she said we can reduce our anxiety to a manageable level.

Driving into the skid is so hard. I wrote about my anxiety and ongoing struggle to accept my own high risk of breast cancer and other cancers due to a BRCA2 mutation in my book, Probably Someday Cancer: Genetic Risk and Preventative Mastectomy (University of North Texas, 2019).

Thank you to Dr. Hurley for these suggestions:

  • Set a timer for how long you spend following COVID-19 news to avoid overload.

  • Be picky about who you go to for support. FORCE's message boards are a great way to connect with others who understand.

  • Try a grounding exercise: Look around the room and name three things that are blue. Then name three things that are not red. Focusing in this way can shift your mind away from your anxiety.

  • If your mind is racing to worst-case scenarios, try prefacing each fear that comes up with "I feel like" rather than saying it as if it were true.

The grounding exercise reminds me of the advice from many yoga classes to just breathe. So, here's to taking a deep breath and driving into the skid together.

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