How to Face Difficult Diagnoses
The majority of us will experience a devastating diagnosis – whether a chronic disease, cancer, or mental illness – at some point in our lives. Although you can’t truly prepare for negative news, certain strategies can help you face the challenges that lie ahead. Here, Jacquelyn Graham, LPC-MHSP, sheds light on surviving this difficult season with the help of medical professionals, loved ones, and your own inner strength.
By Mary Beth Wallace
Receiving Your Diagnosis
Imagine your doctor has just delivered a shocking, life-changing diagnosis – how do you react? According to Graham, whatever you’re feeling in that moment is normal, as there is no “right” or “wrong” emotion. She explains, “Receiving a negative diagnosis is never easy and can entail a large range of emotions, from sadness, depression, and grief to rage, shock, and fear. Remember that no one has the right to tell you how to feel.”
While it may be difficult to absorb the information about your diagnosis in that initial meeting, having accurate facts can help you understand what to anticipate and the steps you’ll take moving forward. “Too often people are left in a quandary about what to realistically expect when given a diagnosis,” Graham shares. “Having helpful information can make a big difference in how your journey is experienced and navigated.” Important questions to cover with your doctor, either initially or in the following weeks, include diagnostic definitions, time frames, symptom management and treatment, severity, and needed support.
Coping with Your Diagnosis
Having healthy coping mechanisms is an essential tool for dealing with a diagnosis. “An important thing to consider when developing coping skills is making sure that the desired outlets are plausible based on your condition and resources,” Graham says. “The best channels are not always expensive and should be considered in terms of relevance and practicality to what you’re going through.” For example, various outlets such as journaling, painting, playing a musical instrument, and prayer can help you express yourself and your feelings. You may also find strength in taking control of your health; this can include staying active through exercise, like hiking or participating in fitness classes, and cooking new and nutritious dishes. More structured and supportive outlets include one-on-one counseling, art and music therapy, and involvement in a spiritual institution.
Of course, there are both helpful and unhelpful ways of managing negative news. According to Graham, unhelpful behaviors include lashing out at others, recklessness, developing unhealthy addictions (i.e. substance abuse, excessive spending), isolating yourself, and discontinuing healthy outlets of enjoyment. While you should never feel pressured to maintain a consistently positive attitude throughout your illness or condition, these unhelpful behaviors will only create more harm for yourself and those around you.
Finding Support throughout Your Diagnosis
More than anything, leaning on others for support is vital to healthily handling a tough diagnosis. Reaching out to mental health counselors, pastors, family members, friends, and colleagues can help you feel less alone; family and friends will likely be eager to assist you in whatever capacity they can, from driving you to appointments to lending a listening ear. Graham adds, “Other positive resources can include support groups, small groups (if part of a religious institution), and organizations that may specialize in the area of your diagnosis.” Support groups in particular provide a judgment-free space to share your concerns, as well as learn from others’ experiences.
“Finding and experiencing peace with yourself and others is one of the most important things anyone with a terminal or difficult diagnosis can do. Whether facing a life-threatening illness, a long-term diagnosis, or a situational diagnosis, being able to live a life that you’re proud of during each phase can play a crucial role in your overall happiness and health.”