“Cervical cancer. You’ll need chemotherapy and radiation.”
This was the way my dear friend was told she was sick. No emotion at all in the delivery, flung from across the room. Like a clean, crisp swipe of a sword through the wisp of hope reaching for a false alarm.
“Do you have any questions?” So many. But even I, sitting as support, and rarely at a loss for words, had a difficult time imagining which to ask first. So, we said no. And the doctor left the room. So much for my role.
I was dumbfounded. How could an oncologist share that diagnosis in such a cold way? I imagined him breaking the worst news to people day after day, and I wondered how he dealt with such a difficult task. Maybe he had to numb himself just to cope. Regardless of his reasons, I wanted him to acknowledge my friend’s feelings, to sit next to her while he shared the news, and exhibit some sense of empathy.
Instead, it felt like there was no room or time for emotion. There were labs to be drawn, paperwork to sign. My friend never shed a tear until she was alone at home. What happens to our bodies when we don’t feel safe expressing emotions? I know from personal experience that what goes on in the privacy of our minds directly influences the way our bodies function.
During my pregnancy with my second child, I had silently stressed about my very sensitive boy having some sort of toddler breakdown when a newborn stole the show. I did realize that first kids survive the arrival of a sibling all the time, so I chalked it up to pregnancy hormone-induced anxiety and kept my craziness to myself.
Once I went into labor, my body decided not to cooperate. Despite laboring actively for more time than it would have taken me to walk a marathon, really slowly, I was stuck. Not even halfway there. As the hospital staff readied an operating room for my cesarian section, my brilliant doula quietly asked me if there wasn’t anything I was worried about. That I should verbalize any concern I might have. I let the cat out of the bag and told her I worried that my son might never forgive me for producing a sibling.
Well, guess what? Instantaneously, I became violently ill; one of the delightful signs that birth is imminent. Well, imminent, as in after an hour of pushing. My doctor was floored. Note to self: do NOT stuff feelings. Ever.
So what does that mean for my friend, for health care professionals that deal with sad situations every day, for worried parents or children, or anyone who happens to feel feelings? According to social psychologist James W. Pennebaker, talking or writing about problems or worries helps improve health. In his book, “Opening Up,” Pennebaker reveals that individuals who experience the death of a loved one frequently develop health problems the year following the death if they choose not to talk about it. Those who are able to express their emotions end up developing significantly fewer health problems during that time period than their silent counterparts.
Actually talking about how we feel also helps us process and resolve fears. One UCLA study took a group of spider-phobes and exposed each to a spider. Out of four groups, only the one in which subjects expressed their feelings about the spider (“I’m terrified!”) were able to move closer to it at the end of the experiment. Even using language to disempower the spider (“that spider can’t hurt me”) had no effect on the subjects’ fear.
So? Feelings should be aired out. Talk about them. Maybe not with the person standing next to you in line at the post office; choose someone you can trust, and who won’t judge, correct or fix you. It doesn’t mean the situation that created those feelings will be resolved, of course, but it may prevent any further harm that harbored fear, sadness, or worry can cause.
If you’re not one to talk about your personal business, or your trusted, non-judgmental ear is unavailable at that moment, write about it instead. You don’t need to show anyone else your writing, so if you’re not into sharing, this is the method for you. Take the time to put pen to paper when you are going through a tough time. Write about the incident that upset you, or whatever you may be feeling, and don’t hold back. Let those ugly, crazy, perhaps embarrassing, emotions spill out on paper, and if you want, destroy your writing when you finish.
It is so easy to shelve our feelings as we move through our days. For many, keeping busy creates a safe distance from those feelings, but the price of avoidance may be high. For your own wellbeing, steel yourself and address even the hardest emotions at some point. Sit with them, feel them, and express. Moving them along and bringing light to them will make you happier and healthier.