In early 2020 stories about the COVID 19 pandemic and possible impacts began flooding the airwaves. There was a collective “freak out” that started to occur as people read about how our hospitals could get overrun and how we’d lose our medical professionals to the disease. There was so much fear and uncertainty about the future that peoples’ stress came from anticipating this possible future. People who weren’t sick started worrying about the possibility that they might get sick. Hospital workers trained to deal with a crisis started feeling anxious that they weren’t prepared. The fear about not being able to handle this crisis became a traumatic event in itself.
What Is Pre-traumatic Stress?
This condition of great stress being caused by the anticipation of an event is called pre-traumatic stress. It’s not a new condition and has been studied in academic articles, especially related to climate change and soldiers’ experience in war. It can be defined as “intrusive involuntary images of possible future events.” In plainer terms, it means stressing over something before it actually occurs.
This is a normal reaction and I think we all do this on occasion. We have a big event coming up and we anticipate and worry about it. Normally, this type of stress is occasional and our worry does not impact our ability to function in our lives. However, when the stress is constant and feels out of our control, it can wreak havoc on us emotionally.
How It Shows Up if You Have a Partner With Cancer
As someone who has a partner with cancer, I’m sure you can identify with this type of stress. How often are you dreading something before it actually happens? Do you have frequent thoughts that your worst fears about your partner health will come true? Are you dreading getting your partner’s test results because you fear what they might be? Do you have images of something going wrong in their upcoming surgery? Do you worry incessantly when they have a strange pain or walk funny that their cancer is spreading? Are you constantly afraid the treatments might stop working?
If you answered yes, then you are experiencing pre-traumatic stress. You are stressing about a possible scenario, before it actually happens.
I first want to tell you and this tendency comes from our brain trying to protect us and warn us of danger. This was very useful when we were living in caves and had to be on the lookout for tigers. Now, this tendency of the brain to focus on what might go wrong can cause us a lot of unnecessary stress.
Our imagination is a powerful tool. In the case of pre-traumatic stress, we are using it to fear the future. We end up feeling like we must worry and stress in order to be prepared. However, worry is never necessary. It can feel like it’s helpful to constantly think through every possible scenario, but really, we are placing our focus on things outside of our control. Not helpful.
Some of the most common thoughts that come up for people is when they are dreading a possible future event are:
They/this might get worse.
I won’t be able to handle it.
The good news is that you don’t have to worry in order to feel prepared. You can instead direct your brain and imagination toward more useful thoughts that will help you to stay more balanced and focused. This takes being intentional, but the alternative is emotional exhaustion.
How to Handle Pre-traumatic Stress
Step 1: Allow the thoughts to come up, don’t try to resist them or control them. This is an automatic response of your brain, so you don’t want to beat yourself up for having these negative thoughts. Write them all out on paper so you can see them. Distinguish your thoughts from the facts.
Step 2: Use your imagination to think about an alternative future, one where everything is fine. This possible future is equally true as the negative one you are imagining. The truth is, you don’t know what is going to happen. None of us ever do. Even the doctors don’t know what’s going to happen. They make an educated guess based on their knowledge and experience, but they still don’t know until it happens. So it could be equally true that everything will be fine. It could be equally true the cancer won’t spread. It could be equally true that the treatments will work.
Step 3: Spend time in both futures. Your brain will automatically ofer up the negative future. Allow these thoughts and feelings, but don’t spend too much time there. When you notice the negative thoughts, spend the same amount of time imagining a positive future. You need to give yourself equal does of negative and positive input. That is important because it’s easy to get lost in despair if you are only focused on what could go wrong.
Step 4: Ask yourself helpful questions and create a helpful mantra.
What is true right now?
How is everything OK right now?
How can I allow my feelings and still be present?
Then create a mantra that includes both positive and negative emotions. You must believe both in order for this mantra to be useful.
I’m worried and capable.
I’m afraid and resilient.
I’m frightened and strong.
I’m fearful of what might happen and I know we’ll get through it.
This time is going to be difficult. It’s hard for your partner and it will be hard for you. But it can be an opportunity to grow if you choose to see it that way. You can choose to build your strength and resiliency in the face of this challenge. Consider the alternative. You can continue to suffer and feel like a victim to the circumstances in your life.
I believe in everyone’s ability to grow and sometimes it’s when we face the biggest obstacles that we grow the most.
I believe in you!
I also know having a coach to support you is super helpful. For me, it changed my entire life and I was able to see that I didn’t have to be a victim to my husband’s cancer. When you make the investment in yourself to get support, you will become stronger and will be able to be there for your partner in a whole new way. Getting support is something you do for you and for them.