Raise your hand if after you heard the words “you have cancer”, you did a lot of soul searching to figure out what you did to cause it.  It’s a natural impulse to look for reasons, but so often there is no easy answer.  Our actions and efforts can help to support our health in many ways, but they do not guarantee outcomes.  That’s a hard pill to swallow, especially if you have always tried to do the right thing.

When we base our security upon a belief that we are powerful when we are in control, we are left feeling highly vulnerable in this life. This is a common concern for those of us who have faced life threatening circumstances, because it is a natural response to want to have control when we face traumatic/life threatening situations.  Our brains are wired for survival, which means they can become hyper-vigilant about what is a threat to our safety.  Sometimes our brains get it right, but so often they attach meaning to innocuous things.

When we attempt to deal with a life threatening situation though logic or by trying to just “move on”, rather than processing it, our feelings can become the number one threat to our sense of control- and thus we spend a lot of time repressing those feelings.

Logic and rational thinking are important tools, but they are not omnipotent. Our feelings are the gatekeepers to our deepest wisdom, our intuition, and for the healing process.  They hold the material of our experience.  They are the messengers that want to be heard.  Even if they threaten our perception of control, they are the ones that will guide us through the experience.  They hold up the red flag, warn us that if we continue to try and control them rather than feel through them, we run the risk of damaging ourselves.

An empowered, resilient person is someone who can accept and respond to life and it’s curve balls.  Someone who does not need to control every moment in order to feel secure.  Someone who is connected to their core self, their emotions and who is present to what is happening.

Increasing your capacity to be empowered and resilient is something that we can all do, it is not a static process but something that evolves throughout the lifespan.

In fact, working on feeling empowered and resilient is ideal when you are facing a life threatening situation, because you will have ample opportunity to try it out and assess how you are doing.  Here are a few tips of where to begin:

  • Learn to slow down, when we are anxious or speeding around we keep the tension/adrenaline coursing through our bodies and this limits our ability to stay connected to ourselves
  • Allow your emotions to flow, when we become adept at experiencing our feelings as they occur they are less likely to build up inside ourselves and become overwhelming.  Imagine your feelings as messengers who need to simply alert you to important information
  • Revise your expectations, expectations are future based, which means they are predictions/guesses.  Even if you are an excellent strategist, it is impossible to know in advance everything, not only will this keep you engaged in trying to control, you might even miss information/opportunities that could help you if it does not match what you predicted.
  • Find ways to increase your sense of safety, this is so important, because when we are in a crisis we need to accept our circumstances and then value ourselves enough to create as much safety as we can.  Having a solid relationship with your medical team, spending time with loved ones who are compassionate, setting boundaries with those who are not capable of being supportive, connecting to others who are going through something similar- these are some examples of building safety even when danger exists.

You don’t need to do this in isolation.  For those of us who have prior histories of trauma or family dysfunction, becoming empowered may feel like a tall order.  If you are struggling, it’s an ideal time to engage in therapy.  If you’ve never been in therapy before, talk with your medical team as they will likely be able to connect you with resources.

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, who works as an oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Through Creative Transformations, Stephanie works with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, a DIY Individual Art Therapy program to enhance any healing work you are undertaking; workshops; and this weekly blog. Sign up today so you never miss one by visiting our website, Creative Transformations, where you will also find the links to our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.