My wife had been in surgery for more than three hours and I knew that was not a good sign. Anxious thoughts flooded in. “What if my beloved, Katie, does have ovarian cancer?” “What if our 10- and 12-year-old daughters have to grow up without their wonderful mother?” “What if Katie doesn’t see our daughters grow up?”
My heart started racing. I began to have a hard time breathing. I stood up, turned and walked away from our daughters who were with me in the hospital waiting room so they wouldn’t see me struggling. Taking deep breaths calmed me some. Eventually, the surgeon appeared and pulled me aside to let me know that Katie had advanced ovarian cancer. He said it had spread and that he was sorry.
It had only been nine months since Katie had finished treatment for stage 1 breast cancer. Getting this new diagnosis so soon was sobering. Having done research, I knew that, at that time, Katie’s chance of survival for more than five years was less than 10 percent.
Thus began a season of stress and anxiety in the life of our family as we became focused on helping Katie get through difficult chemotherapy treatments and doing everything we could to help her survive. Today, Katie is a three-time cancer survivor. This year we celebrated 17 years of being cancer-free from her first bout with breast cancer, 16 years of being cancer-free from advanced ovarian cancer, and five years of being cancer-free from triple-negative breast cancer.
Many factors affect the outcome of a cancer diagnosis. Every cancer patient’s experience is unique. That said, having a family member go through cancer taught us some valuable lessons about connection and managing emotional health to cope during periods of uncertainty and, at times, fear. These lessons are relevant today.
How Are You Feeling This Year?The United States and countries around the world were already experiencing a loneliness epidemic before the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically changed our everyday lives. Stress and anxiety are running high in the US over health concerns, economic uncertainty, social unrest, fear of violence, the challenges of distance learning for students and their parents, the impact of natural disasters, the changes in how we conduct business and the divisive political climate which has been further heightened by it being an election year. Individually and collectively, that’s a lot to deal with all at the same time. (How we navigate the lingering and long-term effects of this traumatic period is a topic for another day.) When our natural inclination might be to get together with family and friends for pleasure or to help each other through pain, the ongoing pandemic has made matters worse as we’ve needed to maintain a safe distance from others to reduce the risk of virus transmission.
This convergence of stress, loneliness, and social isolation means that people will be more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, addiction, and suicide ideation.
What Can Be Done?Earlier in my career, I compartmentalized my work life and my personal life. I was friendly but I wouldn’t have been open or vulnerable with a colleague about how I was doing emotionally. I’ve since learned from experience and research that the best way to protect your emotional health and the emotional health of people you are responsible for leading during challenging times is to tap into the power of human connection.
Here are three practices that can help during this challenging time.
1. Never worry alone.
When Katie was going through cancer treatments, I had friends who regularly took me out for coffee or to go on long runs together. Those conversations helped me immensely. When we worry alone, it engages a part of our brain called the amygdala that processes threats and disengages the cortex where we make rational decisions. We should not be surprised then that the situation can feel darker and more grim as we imagine all sorts of possible negative scenarios. By connecting with someone else in conversation not only can they hear what we are thinking and act as a sounding board, but the cortex of our brain is engaged and the amygdala is disengaged. Connecting also produces serotonin, a hormone that brings about the positive emotion of contentment. The end result is our nervous system is calmed, we feel better, and we make better decisions.
2. Do something to make someone else’s life better.
Research has found that when we help others, we experience a “helper’s high,” a term for how we feel after the release of endorphins, a “feel-good” chemical naturally made in our bodies that can boost our happiness and relieve pain. If you are anxious, look for ways to help others. During the pandemic, there are fewer opportunities to do volunteer work in your community so look for other ways to show you care, such as writing a handwritten note or card to a colleague, friend, or family member that encourages them, sending a “thought you might enjoy this” gift, or offering to pick up items for them when you are at the grocery store. Working on my first book, Fired Up or Burned Out, while Katie was undergoing cancer treatments helped occupy my mind so I had less time to worry. Because my aim was to help people who were struggling with burnout, the work made me feel better.
3. Count your blessings.
Positive psychology research has found that cultivating gratitude by simply naming three things you are grateful for and writing them down produces positive emotions. I’ve found that this is especially helpful when I’m feeling anxious or stressed. Is your mind racing as you try to fall asleep? Redirect your thoughts by identifying things, big or small, that you appreciate—the color of fall leaves, a colleague who covered for you, a clever plot twist in a book you are reading, the hard work being done to identify a vaccine for the COVID-19 pandemic, and so forth.
As you consider how to encourage others to maintain their emotional and physical health and support them so they are able to do their best work, keep in mind that you can’t give what you don’t have. How well you are coping during this stressful season will affect how well you can help the people you are responsible for leading. In addition to using the three practices above, ask yourself these questions: Do I have sufficient human connection? Am I getting enough sleep? Am I eating a healthy diet, at least most of the time? How is my level of physical activity? Do I need more exercise? These are a few of the areas you should examine if you want to improve your resiliency.
We need one another even more during this unprecedented time so I urge you to reach out to those around you rather than retreat. Don’t step back if you sense someone is hurting; step forward with genuine concern for their well-being. Be a good listener. Consider sharing this article with people at work and putting the importance of connection in front of them.