Feeling my way

Emotions. We don’t really understand them, do we. And I guess living in a society that kind of ‘doesn’t go there’ can make it very challenging to know what they’re all about and why we have them. Let alone to deal with them. And the experience of cancer is such an emotional rollercoaster, isn’t it. So many uncomfortable feelings. But instead of running from them, I find it often helps if we begin to understand why and how we experience emotions in the first place.

Because most people don’t realise that emotions are there to guide us. To protect us. To help us make better decisions. To ensure our survival. And it kind of works like this. Every experience we ever have is processed by our brain below conscious awareness. And it happens with lightening speed. Then an ‘emotional tag’ is added to the experience. Survival value. To help us know whether this is good or bad for us, whether we should engage in more or run away. About the same time our body responds. If it’s tagged ‘bad’ our hands might go cold and clammy or we might feel sick on the stomach. If it’s tagged ‘good’ we respond quite differently. And only then do we get a feeling about it pop up into conscious awareness. Yes this feels good, I’ll have more of this. Or no, this is all wrong, get me out of here. So when I got my diagnosis for instance, a part of my brain, much quicker than my conscious mind, listened to the words the doctor said and added the tag ‘terrifying’ to it. And the feeling that came up for me was both fear and utter despair. While I processed the emotion at a subconscious level, I felt these feelings at a conscious level.

And what do we do with our feelings? Well some are very comfortable, aren’t they. We like those. But some might hurt. We try to avoid those. Push them down perhaps and exercise a stiff upper lip. Some take us out of control, flying off the deep end. While others may be scary and take away our quality of life. And sometimes, if the feelings are just too painful, or too difficult to deal with, we can repress them completely. Doesn’t mean there’s no emotion, just that we’re not feeling it.

Many people don’t realise the impact of our feelings and emotions on our ability to heal. But oncologist Carl Simonton did. It was Carl Simonton who pioneered the importance of healing our emotions in cancer treatment. In his work over the years helping people with cancer, he formed the view that many of us are killing ourselves with unconscious emotional pain. Pain we’ve never dealt with. Pain we’ve buried. Pain we may no longer feel at a conscious level. Pain below the surface of our awareness just ticking away. Because so many of his patients had experienced a severe emotional loss just before the diagnosis. And the problem is emotional stress causes our body to not work as well. Research shows that people who are bereaved for instance, or lonely, have less natural killer cells. Cells so important in protecting us against cancer. Not everybody responds this way of course. But some of us do. It’s good to know that laughter on the other hand is a wonderful way of building our natural killer cells, isn’t it.

And that’s why emotional healing is such an important part of cancer care. Not an optional extra. But a very necessary part of ensuring our immune system is back up and running. And life is so much better when we can finally let go of the grief, or the fears, or the troubles we may have carried for years. Learning to live again. Learning to laugh again. Something we can do to support our own healing. And most people are surprised to discover just how easy this can be…

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