Breast cancer survivor, Jess Braude, gives us her tips for coping with the uncertainty surrounding everyone’s lives during the COVID-19 pandemic.
‘In these uncertain times’ is a phrase I’ve heard more often in the last three months than ever before in my life. But have we properly considered the impact of this uncertainty and how can we mitigate its potential negative effects on mental health?
Many of us have had the luxury of programming our lives down to the smallest detail, deriving comfort and a sense of stability from this control. But then something like COVID-19 (or a cancer diagnosis) happens and bam, all of this goes out the window, leaving us feeling like life is no longer within our control. This can breed anxiety and stress for those new to uncertainty in their lives.
But for cancer survivors like myself, uncertainty is a part of day-to-day living. In 2017, I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. It was only 1cm in size and I was really lucky to pick it up early. After extensive treatment and surgery, I’m now cancer-free. My relationship with uncertainty probably started when I found out I had the BRCA gene eight months before my diagnosis. But even now, years after I’ve been declared cancer-free, uncertainty over whether my cancer will return still worms its way into my mind.
Thankfully, through a combination of self-reflection and professional help I’ve been able to employ some tips and tricks to allow me to cope with this uncertainty and get on with my day. These may be helpful for you if you’re struggling to come to terms with a future clouded by this pandemic:
Get up, get out and get on with it, try not to dwell on what you can’t control. There are so many things amid this pandemic that are out of your control, most notably, when your life will go back to normal and when this uncertainty will end. Try to put it out of your mind and focus on the present day or moment, which is well within your control.
Try to maintain a daily routine, however mundane. If uncertainty is causing you to feel anxious, it’s probably because like me, you’re a creature of habit. So, form new ones. Make your bed every day, go for a 20-minute walk, watch an episode of TV on your lunch break, have a Zoom call with your mates from school every Thursday. If it gives you comfort to program your life, recognise that and set a new schedule.
Don’t look too far ahead, try to focus on the ‘here and now’. With rules changing all the time, it’s impossible to plan further than about a week ahead. Relish the challenge this poses to just focus on, and appreciate, the day ahead of you. You’ll never get to live today again.
Accept that you can’t control everything and that it’s normal to feel anxious or stressed given the situation. Further to my first point, accept that these feelings of anxiety and stress are normal. Your life has been turned upside down and it’s ok to feel the entire spectrum of emotion, but just don’t waste extra energy beating yourself up for having these feelings.
Practice gratitude for what you do have. You’ve probably heard this in countless mental wellness guides, but there’s a reason for that. Each day write down three things you’re grateful for and it will help you recognise and appreciate this feeling more regularly.
Recognise that your thoughts are not who you are. Especially during troubling or quieter times, it can be easy for evil little thoughts to worm their way into your mind, forcing you to ponder all ‘what if’s’ lingering in life right now. If you think of them as cricket balls, let negative thoughts or emotions “go through to the keeper”.
Stay socially connected and talk about your emotions if that helps. If you know that it helps you to talk about your problems, then take the opportunity to reach out to your support network and lean on them in your time of need.
Set limits around your exposure to media, especially if nothing is really changing. So much of what you see on the TV and social media is just opinions and assumptions. Whatever is going to happen, will happen and there’s very little you can do to change that. Switching off the internet for a while can really help you not become overloaded with all the negativity floating around in the news and on social media at the moment. Stay informed but give yourself a break every now and again.
These tips have helped me maintain my mental health through the uncertainty of a cancer diagnosis, so hopefully there’s something in here that can also make your lives in isolation that little bit better.