Mental health and wellbeing is proven to be just as important in your experience with cancer as your actual physical health, whether during treatment or in survivorship. Unfortunately, the turn of a new year often means setting goals that get people wanting to lose weight and dieting (more about the difference between the importance of nutrition as opposed to dieting here).
Unsurprisingly, approaching health comprehensively by taking into account emotional, mental, and physical health is far better for us overall. In fact, improving mental health is actually good for our physical wellbeing and can decrease risk of disease and mortality.
However, not much space is given, from social media to public health, about the importance of a comprehensive approach to wellbeing. If you’re looking for a better way to approach a new year (or start fresh whatever time of year it is), take a moment to reflect on how to improve your mental health and wellbeing with the following proven tips.
What we’ll cover in this blog:
Get good at the coping mechanism that works best for you
Think about wellbeing comprehensively during and after cancer – SPIRE framework
Get in touch with a professional to process your reality
Get good at the coping mechanism that works best for you
When we’re going through difficulty, we’re often grieving the loss we experience because of a cancer diagnosis. Whatever kind of cancer or whatever stage you’re in, the diagnosis means you lose something – if nothing else, a sense of control.
In order to deal with the impact of this loss and however it affects you, it’s important to find a means to cope with your new reality, however temporary or permanent. This can be achieved through practicing coping skills, which are proven to help people who go through cancer become more resilient in the face of uncertainty (by the way, this can be a helpful TED talk on living with uncertainty because of cancer). Here are a few coping mechanisms to practice in order to improve your mental health:
Connect with others who’ve been there (or are there now)
Connecting with others who have been through something similar makes you feel less isolated or misunderstood during and after cancer. It’s also a great way to understand, from someone who’s been there, what to expect and feel a greater sense of control by informing yourself from these real life experiences, and the wisdom of others.
Whether you’re the first person you know who’s been diagnosed with cancer or you know someone close who has been through it or is currently doing so, join the War On Cancer app to easily connect with others who have your same diagnosis or are your age – ask all the questions, learn from them, feel less lonely and more in control.
Journal and share your experiences
When we journal or tell our story, it enables us to reflect on what we’ve been through, helps us process what it is we’re currently experiencing, and gain perspective on both. According to Harvard, the process can help us organize our thoughts and regulate our emotions, especially when going through something unexpected in life. It’s also shown to help deal with a traumatic experience (not directly after, but a few months after the trauma occurred) by helping us break free from rumination and getting stuck in negative thoughts.
The War On Cancer Co-founder and former leukemia patient and cancer survivor, Fabian Bolin, writes about the power of storytelling during his cancer experience. Read his insight here.
Develop a sense of meaning and purpose
When we go through the unthinkable, it is often difficult to associate our experiences with something that is meaningful or has a silver lining, whether now or in the future (after all, that is the power of retrospect). However, no matter what you’re going through, research indicates that helping others is associated with “higher levels of daily positive emotion and better overall mental health.”
Another way to lift our eyes above our situation is to practice gratitude, explicitly mentioning (whether verbally or written or in some other form that works best for you) what you are grateful for, every day. It can be as big as positive news about the effectiveness of your cancer treatment, or as “small” or “normal” as the sun shining, the coffee you’re drinking, the kid who made you smile, the song you listened to. Once you start, it’ll get easier and perhaps the things you’re grateful for will grow, and you’ll see the positive effect of this in your daily life.
Research from Berklee also shows that helping others is proven to provide meaning to our lives. It does so because it helps us improve the quality of our relationships, and instills in us a sense of autonomy, competence and relatedness. If you want to use your experience with cancer to help improve the lives of everyone affected by cancer, now and in the future, make sure to check out Health Studies in the War On Cancer app and use your experiences to contribute to cancer research. Or, if you know the answer to someone’s questions or concerns about cancer, offer your experience and advice as a way to help them forward.
Think about wellbeing comprehensively during and after cancer
When we think about wellbeing, it’s easy to separate our needs into mental and physical health. However, by seeing the way in which each aspect of our health affects the others, we’re more equipped to tend to our health in a wholesome and effective way. For example, physical health improves our mental health, just as emotional health improves our physical health. Everything’s connected.
Tal Ben-Shahar’s is specialized in the science of happiness and created Harvard’s most popular course ever about the science of happiness. His research takes an interdisciplinary approach, combining various areas of expertise – psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, theology, economics, and medicine – to better understand what fuels human happiness. From this research comes a comprehensive and universal method that’s easily applicable into our everyday lives.
The following five areas are defined as the universal pillars of happiness, what he calls the SPIRE framework. If you want to set concrete goals that take into account all aspects of your wellbeing, the SPIRE framework, outlined below, how you’d like to set intentions for each of the following areas:
- Spiritual: Spirituality and having a sense of meaning and purpose. This can be through, for example, religion, spirituality, meditation, or being present. As Ben-Shahar says, “being present to the wonder of reality outside and inside us.”-
- Physical: Physical exercise, nutrition, sleep, and health in general. Interestingly, the number one predictor of physical health is actually building relationships (more on that under “Relational”).
- Intellectual: Continuous deep learning and curiosity, asking questions and being open to new experiences.
- Relational: Interpersonal wellbeing, spending time with people we care about and who care about us. This can be all kinds of relationships – family, friends, romantic, professional. It’s about building close, intimate, deep relationships. This is the number one predictor of happiness worldwide.
- Emotional: The ability to deal with painful emotions and the ability to cultivate pleasurable emotions, from joy to excitement to gratitude.
Get in touch with a professional to better process your reality
Going through cancer is hard, whether you have cancer or have a loved one who does. Maybe journaling doesn’t work. Maybe, however hard you try, you’re struggling to find things to be grateful for or the energy to stay positive. That’s normal. Here’s where it can be very helpful to reach out to a loved one (or maybe someone you know who’s going through something similar in the War On Cancer community) to share the way you’re feeling.
It’s also normal to want or need to talk to someone who you don’t know personally about what you’re experiencing, especially a professional. They have proven techniques that work in helping you, as an individual, improve your mental health and equip you with the tools and coping mechanisms that are effective for you. Let your healthcare team know that you’re interested in this and get into touch with someone who can help.
Research shows that receiving psychological therapy improves the mental health and wellbeing of people affected by cancer, as it helps us cope with our diagnosis, and decreases the occurrence of depression and anxiety, and is even shown to extend survival time. Worth it, right?
Want to know a little bit about what to expect before meeting a psychologist or therapist? Check out our conversation with psychologist, Dag Härdfeldt, who is specialized in helping people who go through cancer, about what you can expect.
The information shared does not constitute a medical consultation and is not intended to replace professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Consult with your doctor or other qualified health providers for questions regarding a medical condition, especially during the active period of Corona / Covid19. Please do not disregard professional health provider advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read here. In the event of a medical emergency, call a doctor, 112 or 911 immediately.