How to Deal With the Mental Ramifications of Bad Medical News

When you’re diagnosed with a serious illness or cancer, it’s not always the physical symptoms that cause the most damage. Sometimes the mental and emotional effects hurt the worst.

It can be so easy to fall into depression, anxiety, and hopelessness — but you don’t have to.

The Emotional Impact of Serious Diagnoses

When a doctor walks in the room, looks you in the eyes, and says, “I’m sorry to tell you that you have [insert serious diagnosis],” your immediate reaction is entirely unpredictable. Some sit there silently with no facial expression, while others break down and cry.

Some people get angry, while doctors have even witnessed patients who laughed or made jokes. The initial response to a dire diagnosis is unpredictable, but the long-term response is of greater concern to caregivers in the medical community.

After the diagnosis settles in — hours or days later — many patients struggle with depression and anxiety. And these emotional responses aren’t always rooted in the terminal prognosis.

“Many things can cause these feelings,” the American Cancer Society explains. “Changes in body image can impact self-esteem and confidence. Family and work roles may be altered. People might feel grief at these losses and changes. Physical symptoms such as pain, nausea, or extreme tiredness also seem more likely to cause emotional distress. People might also fear death, suffering, pain, or all the unknown things that lie ahead.”

Don’t Do it Alone

It’s essential for people who are diagnosed with a serious illness or condition not to try to manage their feelings on their own. Just as you need a medical team to help you with your physical condition, you should surround yourself with people who can help you manage the emotional side.

“Patients who acknowledge their difficult feelings and seek support for learning how to cope with them will fare the best,” explains Bergman Draper Ladenburg, a law firm that works closely with mesothelioma patients and their families.

“It’s important to prevent the onset of severe depression or even physical complications brought on by unresolved anxiety. Many patients benefit from speaking with a professional or from use of an anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication.”

Sometimes it’s the small things that get to people who have just received the difficult news. Another wise tactic is to remove as many stressors from your life as possible.

By having other people handle such tasks as laundry, dishes, meals, work projects, and errands, you can focus on attending to your emotional and physical needs. Some may seem like frivolous tasks, but they are very much a part of reality, and the benefit of shifting your focus cannot be overrated.

The Lingering Effects of a Serious Diagnosis

While you may assume that finding a cure or going into remission would mean the end of any anxious and depressing thoughts, the truth is that the emotional side effects can linger far longer.

“I’m recovering well from an aggressive case of prostate cancer, I haven’t had any treatment in months, and all of my physical signposts of health are pointing in the right direction,” cancer survivor Dana Jennings says. “Still, I’m depressed.”

This isn’t meant to scare you, but to provide a wake-up call. Don’t assume you can skate by without letting other people in and telling them know about your emotional struggles.

Physical ailments can be slowed, reversed, and even cured with the right treatment, medicine, and lifestyle choices, but it’s much harder to deal with emotional issues after you’ve given them time and space to settle in your mind. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness.

The quicker you understand this and the sooner you seek help, the better off you’ll be. There’s hope at the end of the tunnel; just make sure your mind is in a healthy place so you can reach it.

Melissa Thompson
Melissa Thompson writes about a wide range of topics, revealing interesting things we didn't know before. She is a freelance USA Today producer, and a Technorati contributor.