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Q&A: How can I cope with bad medical news?

When bad news comes, it's important to first try to slow the whirlwind down. Here are some ways you can do that.


Q: How can I cope with bad medical news?

A: When your physician tells you or a family member that you have a chronic or terminal disease, it can hit you like a whirlwind. As a cognitive-behavioral therapist and licensed psychologist, I know that when bad news comes, it's important to first try to slow that whirlwind down.  Here are some ways you can do that:

1. Stop and think. Remember, not everything can or will be answered or solved in that very moment. Techniques such as calming breaths and long exhalations, meditation, or exercise can help quiet the mind and slow the rush of emotions. This will help bring clarity to your decision-making.

2.  Look for helpers. Others have been in this position before you. Who are your role models, your inspiration? Who has been through this experience and can give you support as you navigate it? And think about ways you can help yourself. What would you say if it were your best friend experiencing the same thing?

3.  Get the facts. It can be easy to make assumptions about what you think will happen to you. Gain some clarity by speaking with doctors, social workers, psychologists, employers, family members, and friends to find out about how your illness may affect you, your family, and your job.

4.  Create a plan. Make a list of priorities regarding the roles, activities, and people that are important to your quality of life. If it seems treatment will alter day-to-day functioning, figure out how to maintain the things that are most important during difficult times. And consider how friends or loved ones can help. People want to and may offer to help, but don't know how. Ask them to help in specific ways.

5.  Give yourself a break. Know that some days will be better than others, and take each moment as it comes. Remind yourself to feel gratitude and appreciation daily — even if you have to dig deep and appreciate simple things. Allow yourself time to connect with your feelings of sadness, anger, fear, or confusion. Figure out what contributes to these negative feelings and identify if there is something you can do to combat those feelings.

Consider the saying, "We can't change the waves, but we can learn to surf." Embracing this philosophy may allow you to learn to live life with the illness, condition, or disease you are battling, rather than allowing it to become your life or identity.

Stephanie Felgoise, Ph.D., is a professor and vice chair of psychology at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.