Summary of our weekly group discussion ~ 29th March 2017
BALANCING POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE EMOTIONS
This week our discussion explored how we balance 'positive' and negative emotions.
"Think positive” is a phrase we often hear when we are diagnosed with breast cancer. Sometimes we say it to ourselves, sometimes others say it to us as a way of encouraging us. But what does it really mean to 'think positive'? How does it benefit us and are there drawbacks of a 'positive' mental attitude?'
As a group, we shared that adopting a positive outlook had helped us to manage the intense emotions that are in the driving seat when we find out we have primary or secondary breast cancer. Our initial reactions include shock and disbelief; we often have to deal with the practicalities of treatment decisions and schedules, reinforcing our natural tendency to adopt an avoidant style of coping. Many of us described being naturally drawn to avoiding our negative feelings, wishing to appear positive in our interactions with the world at large, and in some circumstances we thought this was helpful. However, draw backs to this attitude include becoming cut-off from our emotions, numb, or unable to share our authentic feelings, leading us to feel isolated.
Some of us shared that we could express positive and negative emotions, and felt this was liberating. Others described consciously or unconsciously finding themselves being drawn to the 'silver linings' - the positives that had come about as a result of our changed circumstances, such as spending time with our children while being on sick leave.
Naz told us about research on cognitive flexibility, its promising influence on mental well-being and encouraging effect on building resilience. The elasticity and plasticity by which we embrace our diverse range of emotional experiences helps us regulate our emotions appropriately and appreciate our experiences, however complex they may seem.
This lyric from the song Elastic Heart, by Sia, helps explain these ideas:
“Well, I've got thick skin and an elastic heart, But your blade—it might be too sharp, I'm like a rubber band until you pull too hard, Yeah, I may snap and I move fast, But you won't see me fall apart, cause I've got an elastic heart”.
In terms of our feelings, this means feeling sad, grieving when we need to and being fearful when it’s necessary. A flexible style of thinking, like the rubber band, is elastic. Naz explained that brain plasticity is not a simple thing to achieve, especially when we have gone through highly traumatic experiences, ones that continue to haunt us. Breast cancer brings with it uncertainty and the danger of recurrence, the progression of disease, loom high. In these circumstances, our brains are geared towards anxiety related thinking styles, appropriately even, hypervigilant for signs of danger, feeding into anxiety and worry. However, this increases our vulnerability.
Naz explained that research shows that our ability to embrace negative thoughts and painful experiences paves our way to allow the positives we experience to nurture us. This is especially relevant to those of us living with breast cancer and its effects because we take our cancer forward with us. Our moments of ‘being down’ can help us to understand ourselves and embracing our inner fears helps us to practice gratitude, and grit. The balance is hard to achieve, but it can be done with practice.
If you are a woman living in the UK with a diagnosis of breast cancer and you would like to join our private group, please leave your name in the comments.