The drive to conquer my fears is why I insist on playing Phasmaphobia even when I dread the thought of it.
Phasmaphobia is marketed as a “horror” video game, the kind that I actively avoid. The concept is simple: you and up-to-three other networked players enter a haunted building, set up equipment and collect evidence of a ghostly presence. There are different tasks to complete but the ultimate goal is to gather enough data to be able to determine what type of ghost is haunting the premises.
Oh, yeah. And also to get out alive.
Because depending on how long everything takes you to do, sooner or later, the ghost is going to hunt you.
Now, there’s a lot more that I could say about this game, specifically about how it’s set up quite intelligently to be unnervingly terrifying. And there’s Articifial Intelligence involved, which means that the ghost can recognize some of the words that you say (hint: don’t cuss!) that will get it angry and on the hunt faster.
But this post is not a review of the game.
This is an observation that this silly game picked me up and threw me to the ground. It was a reflection of real life, because it perfectly reproduced ME, under acute stress.
By that I mean, tight chest, rapid breathing, elevated heartrate, shaking hands, the whole shebang. I get that gamers go through that, but for me, this meant more. These reactions were exactly the kinds of physiological responses to anxiety that have increasingly plagued me through the years.
People who can handle high levels of stress with cool distance have always impressed me. In fact, I’ve come to see that as a superpower. Being able to maintain mental space around you so that the walls don’t come closing in, squeezing breath out of your chest. That ability to think clearly when things are falling apart around you.
I have often thought, what would my experience be like if I could just dampen that physiological response. Well, Phasmaphobia has given me a chance to practice that.
I imagine myself going into that onscreen home, doing what I need to do, seeing the signal that the ghost is on the hunt (flashlight starts flashing and the front door closes and locks), and very calmly moving to a hiding place and waiting out the event. Declaring to the ghost, “You don’t scare me! I had cancer!” This is, after all, just a game. I’ve been through far worse things in my life.
But, no. Really, I’m kind of a mess. I can’t breathe, I can’t maneuver through a doorway, I drop things and do stupid stuff.
But I’m also stubborn. And playing this game with others like my husband who is unimpressed by the potential terror and shrugs off my disbelief that he’s not unnerved at all (note: he’s also played way more video games) makes me all the more determined to use Phasmaphobia as a “safe space” to practice my calming skills. I can remind myself that the fear is not real, that I’m only looking at a screen and that I walk away from the computer at any time. I don’t have to feel this way.
I am currently a work in progress. But I’ll get there. And once I do, my self-confidence will open the way to conquer other terrifying situations.
I meditate. It is a daily habit that I engage in with the best intentions, but I am a victim of my wandering mind. Some days are better than others, most days I struggle with distractions.
Often, I can be halfway through a sit before I realize that I’ve been clenching my jaw or tensing my brow or gripping some other part of my body, thinking I’ve been relaxed but I’ve been kidding myself.
There are times that I’ve managed to stay with my breath, and then start getting excited that I’ve stayed with it that long, and then start imagining how I might look, staying with my breath…and of course, then I’m no longer meditating.
So it goes, day in, day out. Everyday, once or twice a day, or maybe even more. Some days feel like a complete waste, like I’ve got a freeway running through my head and have no idea what I’m doing.
But once in a while, I get a few moments of golden light. They may just flicker in and out, but when I look back at those moments I know everything flowed.
And those mindful sessions make all the other ones worth the effort. Every time I pause before reacting. Each time I recognize my body’s physiological response to a stressor. When I remember that I don’t have to respond with anxious energy. That I get to chose what happens inside my head. That I can just say, “Sh-h-h-h.”
That I can stand back and observe the storm without getting sucked into the whirlwind.
I meditate and often don’t do it well. But I still meditate. As of this posting, 1,380 days in a row, originating with the most frantic breaths shortly after my cancer diagnosis. Even through chemo, when I thought I wouldn’t make it through the night. Sloppy meditation sessions that seemed to be going nowhere.
Those imperfect meditation sessions have changed over time, imperceptable on a daily basis. Perhaps they have worn away a few rough edges the way constant drops of water oh-so-gradually wear away a stone. And just as an indentation forms where the drops hit, so meditation has molded a little basin for me, a bit of extra space in my mind that provides just that much more breathing room.
I am still at the very start of my mindfulness journey, so imperfect and stumbling. But even with the little that I have achieved, I am light-years ahead of who I was before I started, wide-eyed with fear and not knowing how to stop the rush of emotions.
It was terrifying then because I didn’t realize what was happening. Now I know, and that makes all the difference.
Full confession here: For years (ahem, decades), I disliked cleaning. I understood the importance of keeping things clean and tidy. But I never connected a positive feeling with it. Even as an adult, I would put it off. And off. And then someone would want to stop by and I’d be filled with dread. Never was the disheveled state of my home as apparent to me as when an outsider walked though the front door. Suddenly, I saw everything with fresh eyes, and it didn’t look great.
My approach to cleaning changed when I did one small thing: I noticed that my life was not one big overwhelming mess. It was a series of little challenges. So, too, my home. I stopped looking at everything as a whole. The whole was overwhelming. The whole meant a day spent cleaning and organizing. It didn’t have to be like that.
When I started looking at the work as distinct items, it was so much easier to take care of things. A small pile of papers. Scrubbing out the kitchen sink. Cleaning three windows.
It was that simple. I stopped thinking about “all the stuff I need to do”. Instead, I thought, “Oh, look! This is done already.” The boost of positivity that I got from taking care of the finite tasks was infinitely rewarding.
Most importantly, I made this a working meditation. My focus was on “now”. Scrubbing this spot of the bathtub. When it was done, I went to another spot. And that way traveled around the bathroom and out to other rooms until I was done for the time being. The rhythm made the day bright.
My personal strategy for cleaning mindfully:
Set a timer for a reasonable amount of time, say, 10-15 minutes — you will quickly find a time that’s right for you based on how much you bristle when it’s time to start. Pick out a manageable “project” (or perhaps several) that you can get done during that time. Start when the timer starts. When the alarm rings, you’re done.
Whatever you are doing, do it with a focus on the present moment. Give your full attention to what you’re working on. This is not the time to worry about what else needs to be done — stay with what you’re doing now, just as you would stay with your breath during meditation.
Decide to do it again tomorrow. That stuff you did today? It’s done and no one can take that away from you, so whatever you do tomorrow only adds to the satisfaction of moving forward. Consistency is what makes this strategy work.
Bring lightness and joy to the task. Play music, run an essential oil diffuser. Mark your success with staying on task by bringing in fresh flowers, even just foliage clippings in a colorful vase. Help yourself feel positive through the process. THIS IS NOT A PUNISHMENT.
Pick up after yourself throughout the day. There is great power in putting things away right after you’re done with them. It feels so silly to even have to write that, but trust me, it’s a useful reminder, and one that I needed until it became a habit. (Who am I kidding? I STILL need the reminder.)
The corollary to #5 is not to procrastinate on starting. If you start now and recycle five papers that you don’t need, there will be five fewer papers cluttering your desk. If you do that again tomorrow, that will be ten. Do it now. I have missed out on so many wonderful opportunities in my life because I put things off, a clean home being the least of them.
Notice how good it makes you feel to invite order into your life.
I’ve found that the state of my surroundings is representative of my emotional state. And my emotional state likewise responds to the environment around me. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, my world crumbled around me, physically and emotionally. Everything felt out of control and my surroundings reinforced that sense of despair. It took months for me to finally get a grip and move past the overwhelm.
Bringing order into my life was like an anchor that helped me recover, in many senses of the word. When I focused on what was good in my world, I spent less time worrying about what was wrong.
After reading about the tragic passing of actor Chadwick Boseman at age 43 from colon cancer, in addition to his nothing-short-of-heroic efforts to persevere with his career and charitable acts while facing cancer treatment and a worsening prognosis, I was moved with emotion. First, for the loss of an immensely talented actor who would have had a long and bright future. Second, because knowing how society looks at cancer sufferers, he would not have gotten the roles he did had he been open about his diagnosis.
And, third, for the rest of us run-of-the-mill cancer patients. When I was going through treatment, I wasn’t a hero. I was scared. I didn’t keep my illness a secret so that I wouldn’t be viewed as “uncastable” like Mr. Boseman might have been, or so I would be unhindered in my drive to achieve great things, as other notable cancer patients have. At least the ones who are written about in the media.
Me? I was barely holding on.
Everyone knew about my diagnosis, especially those who saw me on a daily basis. I didn’t want people to speculate about my condition once I started losing my hair and missing work, so I made sure to get the word out. But the real battle I fought was much more personal and invisible. My nemesis was anxiety, and I entered that fight ill-equipped to win it.
So while I was dragging myself around to doctors’ appointments and cancer treatments, I was churning inside. There were days I wanted to numb out and curl up in a corner. But I went to the office. I smiled at coworkers even when I was nauseated by anxiety. That’s it. No great feats, nothing that others could remark favorably on or report in the news. I didn’t feel strong or brave and certainly not like a hero. I simply existed.
It would have been so cool was to have bravely fought cancer while still racking up amazing accomplishments. To be the one about whom people would say, “And she did ALL THAT while undergoing treatment!” No, not me. Not everyone is in a position to be that superhero.
So the point I want to make is that you will hear of the cancer patients who are truly inspirational, and I, along with everyone else, am awed by their strength of character and ability to continue in the face of a life-threatening illness. But there are also many of us that limp along day by day, trying to keep our lives together after they’ve been torn asunder by a cancer diagnosis. We’re not going to get accolades for making it back to work after five days of nausea. But we persevere in our own inconspicuous ways. Perhaps you’re one of those.
From time to time, I think back on my cancer experience (who am I kidding, I think about it every single day!) and wonder how things might have gone differently. Generally, I write for the cancer patient, but this post is directed at the doctor who delivers the diagnosis.
Think very carefully about what else you want to tell a new cancer patient right after you tell them that they have cancer. It better not be important, because they’re not going to hear it. Once you deliver the diagnosis, a cancer patient’s executive level cognitive processes freeze, making comprehension difficult. Any further speech sounds like the “wah-wah-wah” talk of the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons.
For example, I was told two things by my radiologist, when he came into the room after he looked at my diagnostic ultrasound: (1) you have cancer, and (2) you’re going to be alright. Guess which one of those points I didn’t remember. I’m sure my doctor was trying to be cheery and supportive, but I can guarantee you it didn’t work.
Let’s face it, no matter how gently a doctor tries to break it to you, being told that you have cancer is devastating. It’s perfectly normal to be blown back by the news because your life is going to change drastically for at least a while, and maybe permanently. But, geez, doc, you should be prepared to repeat the same info at least several times and cut out the unnecessary bits. Your newly-designated cancer patient is going to have to need time to process the news!
Tip to the patient: bring someone with you to your subsequent visits who’s good at taking notes and is on an even keel. I brought my husband but he barely wrote anything down. Turns out, he was just as shocked as I was and wasn’t taking the news any better.
Following up on that, doc, the next thing that I would suggest is that you not give overly specific responses to questions based on assumptions you’re making. I asked about the recovery time from surgery, since I was terrified by the thought of going under the knife. Mine was early stage breast cancer, and ultimately I had a lumpectomy, but that same radiologist had warned me that recovery would take 4-6 weeks. Up to a month and a half?!? I whimpered something along the lines of, “But I have to work,” at which point he reminded me that my health was more important than my job.
I don’t know where he pulled out such a long recovery time, but being given that sort of time frame compounded my anxiety. Maybe he also said that some people have a shorter recovery time, but of course, I wasn’t processing info well and all I could remember was “4-6 weeks”.
So I would recommend to doctors, (1) if you really don’t know specifics, don’t offer estimates–I was back to work the week after my surgery, btw–and (2) please don’t blow off a patient’s concern about the importance of other aspects of their lives, like going to work. Yes, ultimately, as the saying goes, “if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.” But for many of us, if you don’t have a job, you don’t have health insurance! Everything in our lives is interconnected. It’s all important. Please keep that in mind.
Hey, nobody likes to deliver bad news and I know you’re trying your best. But the only thing worse than telling someone they have cancer is being the one it’s being told to. So please, be gentle. You will go home that evening possibly bummed that another one of your patients has cancer.
The patient is going home that evening embarking on one of the most frightening journeys of their life.
I feel that I need to revisit the whole letrozole thingie, just to be fair.
In my last post I expressed my frustration with the continued side effects of the estrogen-supressing aromatase inhibitors designed to reduce the risk of cancer recurrence. Cancer survivors face a considerable amount of pressure from our oncologists to stay on these medications, but everyone agrees that their use does not come without health risks or hits to one’s quality of life. The latter is a squishy concept that is not easily quantifiable.
Deciding whether to take medications for the length of time prescribed, or stop them early, comes down to an individual’s tolerance of both the side effects and risk.
So after all the complaining in my last post, the big question I have in front of me is that, given that I’m already postmenopausal — regardless of the fact that it was the medication that pushed me into menopause — if I were to stop letrozole, would I experience a significant improvement of my complaints? And if I could reverse the side effects how long would it take? None of that is clear.
Granted, there remains additional risk in taking an aromatase inhibitor, particularly long-term, as the cessation of estrogen production contributes to aging and age-related maladies, including heart issues, bone loss and broken bones. And certainly, there is gradual collagen and hair loss, not to mention suppression of the libido.
But if we ignore that for now, I have to admit that not all days are as bad as how I described them. I don’t lie in bed staring at the ceiling while every single side effect hits me all at once. I experience them here and there. And most of them are tolerable.
My fear is about the future. If I’m feeling this now, what will it be like in another six months or a year? What if things go downhill gradually and I don’t realize it until later when I’ve slid so far down that nothing is salvageable. That’s completely ignoring the realities of the “now” for the imagined troubles of tomorrow. That is not being mindful!
But unfortunately, with medications such as these, the future is a factor that must be taken into account, and with that comes anxiety. Of course, anxiety always makes things worse. For me, it’s one of the most difficult side effects of cancer, because it magnifies all the negatives, both real and imagined.
I realized after I submitted the last post, after I complained about all the things I was experiencing, that not everything was as horrible as I thought. Things are not “normal”, and the situation is still applying a frustrating pressure on my quality of life. But maybe, for now, can I hold on and get the most out of the benefits of letrozole, and then re-evaluate tomorrow?
There are few things more terrifying than the unknown.
I experienced this with my cancer diagnosis, although it would be the same with any catastrophe that significantly alters your life, such as losing a job when you’re already financially strapped. You’re hit with the news and then…everything stops. It doesn’t matter who else is talking or what other information is relayed, because the gravity of the situation stops up your ears and you hear nothing else.
A powerfully negative event throws up a wall that you cannot see around. When the future is undefined, it can take any form. This is a positive and liberating concept when you’re embarking on a new venture — “the sky’s the limit!” But in the case of something that’s painfully life-changing, our minds race to frightening prospects, often culminating in a terrifying extreme that we can’t see our way out of.
This is where you pause and breathe. Get your facts together and see what your options are. Things get easier when the darkness in front of you parts and you see a path to follow. After my cancer diagnosis, it was when I met with the oncologist who explained the possible variations of my condition, what the treatments would be for each, and yes, even what the potential outcomes were.
Sitting there, digesting the information, I finally felt like I had something to hold on to. If the diagnosis was a hulking monolith, smooth and slippery, blocking my way, my doctor’s words gave me handholds with which to climb.
Right then, the future looked more manageable. I still desperately wished that it had been different, but I saw the path through the ordeal and it gave me something to follow as I strode forward.
April 27, 2017 was a Thursday. It was also the day of my first chemo infusion. If you’ve ever gone through chemotherapy, you’ve sat through the full disclosure of all potential side effects. There’s so much that it can be disorienting.
But on that Thursday when my husband and I went to the infusion room, I learned that there was a process. Everything doesn’t hit you at once, you take it in steps as you make your way down the path.
I’m still walking. But at least I’m still walking.
With everything that’s going on right now, it would not be surprising if you were having trouble sleeping.
I myself have an internal alarm that wakes me up around 3am, giving frightening thoughts a chance to land hard punches. It’s far easier to keep negative emotions at bay during the daylight hours, but our defenses are down when we’re groggy. Before I know it, I’m already on that hamster wheel, getting nowhere and working up an anxious sweat in the process.
There’s a lot to worry about in the time of COVID-19. Take your pick of stressors: finances, physical health, relationships, emotions. At night, our brain wants to fix everything that we’re hit with during the day, but obviously, that’s not the time for it. Few things are as critical for dealing with stress as a good night’s sleep, which you won’t get if you’re trying to calculate how many months’-worth of rent you have left.
The mistake we make is trying to let go of things completely. When “danger is imminent”, as in, the worst-case scenario is a distinct possibility, it’s unrealistic to pretend it’s not. I promise you, as a former cancer patient, I had terrors breathing down my neck. I could not simply “let go” of them. They were life-changing and oh-so real. But with a little effort I could loosen their grip on me.
Your concerns need some respect. So instead of trying to avoid them, try gently putting them aside. You know they’re still there, they know they’re still there, but you’re not butting heads. This may take some mental calisthenics.
Ask yourself, “Can I do anything productive right now?” If the answer is no (hint: unless the house is on fire or there’s a tiger loose in your bedroom, the answer is no), then create a mental shelf for your anxious thoughts. You can build one for yourself, right there lying in bed, no hammering required.
Find yourself a jar with a secure lid. I know you have one somewhere in your mind. Scoop your thoughts in there, screw the lid on tightly and place the imaginary jar on that imaginary shelf. This may take several tries — unpleasant thoughts are slippery — but that’s okay. Make sure the shelf is across the room from you. The jar will still be there in the morning when you wake, thoughts swirling inside. But in the darkness, you’ll have some space between them and yourself.
As you lie in your bed, take a deep breath, feel the weight of your body on your mattress, feel the softness of your sheets on your skin. Look at the shelf, way over there. Way, way over there, and you safe in your bed. Allow yourself to relax.
That’s what you need most in the wee hours of the morning. So rest easy now. Tackle the problems tomorrow.
If there were ever a time to open yourself up to being more mindful, it’s in the midst of a global pandemic. We are in foreign territory, in an unsettled state where we’ve lost our footing. Mindfulness can help us find a path through this.
Being mindful is critical now that we’ve got to remain more aware of how we move through space.
There are things that we do automatically. Consider how often you touch your face. Don’t do that! It’s important to notice where your hands are. Are you wearing a face mask? Don’t touch the front of it. When you inhale, you’re creating suction around the mouth and nose, and if you’ve come into contact with viruses, it is more likely that the cloth covering those areas will be contaminated. Remove the mask only using the ties on the back of your head or elastics around your ears.
Going to the store? Be aware of which hand you’re using to do what, even if you’re wearing gloves. Touching door knobs or packages with one hand? Use the other to get your wallet out of your pocket or purse.
What hand are you holding your phone with? Which finger are you touching the screen with? The COVID-19 situation necessitates a focus on what you’re doing. Take a deep breath…and then disinfect everything when you get home.
Living mindfully, in the present, helps us let go of fears surrounding what may happen, and in the midst of unprecedented uncertainty when , most of us have those thoughts. But you don’t have to let them take you over.
Stay grounded in the moment. No one knows exactly what the future will bring, but the possibilities can be scary. Right now, however, you are safe. Feel what part of your body is in contact with the seat or floor. Come down from the frightening thoughts and listen to your breaths. Those imaginings of the future are not happening now. At this moment you are standing or sitting, breathing. Feel into your hands and feet. Can you feel the blood pulsing through them? Feel yourself being supported by the earth. Breathe.
If you don’t yet meditate, this is a chance to start, and it’s a habit that will benefit you for years to come. The good news is that you don’t have to get it “right” the first time. In fact, there is no “right”. There is just consistent practice.
What does meditation look like for you? It doesn’t have to be sitting in lotus position and chanting mantras. There are other ways to meditate. Stay in the moment. Keep your attention on your breath, noticing the quality of the inhales and exhales. When your mind wanders, as soon as you notice your loss of focus, bring yourself back to the breath. Resist jumping down rabbit holes of tempting thoughts. Just stay with your breath. That’s all.
If you need to bring yourself down to a more peaceful state, you can try a more structured breathing technique, such as the 4-7-8 “relaxing breath” espoused by Dr. Andrew Weil: inhale for 4 counts, hold for 7, exhale for 8. It is more important to maintain that ratio rather than to have a count last for a specific amount of time. Do several cycles of this, then return to natural breaths.
Does this feel too forced for you? Your meditation might be listening to a complex piece of music — truly listening to how the instruments blend together, gliding through the different layers of sound — and feeling into the sensations that it invokes in your body.
Perhaps it’s looking at nature through a window, holding a cup of warm tea, immersing yourself in the subtleties and complexities of the world.
Or constructing a jigsaw puzzle, diligently looking for pieces to match a color or pattern. Focusing on the satisfying click when they snap into place. Apparently, this is a stress reducer for many, many people, given how quickly puzzles disappeared from Amazon!
Find your own meditation. Let go of what you think it “should” be and focus on what works for you. There will not be a quiz.
Calm Stress Eating
For those prone to emotional or stress eating, a stay-at-home order can result in weight gain. This is the time to practice awareness of what goes in your mouth. Do you respect yourself with nutritious food or treat your body carelessly? Are you truly hungry or do you eat out of habit or boredom? Are mealtimes a mechanical process for you?
Allow yourself the opportunity to halt other distractions and focus on what you’re eating. In a busy household, this can be difficult, but as with all mindful things, there is no “perfection”. There is simply practice: doing, and doing again.
Look at your food. Savor the aromas. Listen to yourself chew. Taste the flavors. Feel the textures. Close your eyes. Slow everything down. See if you can sense when your hunger has subsided, instead of stopping simply when you’ve eaten everything on your plate.
Create a Calming Space
Now that we’re sheltering in place, it’s not as easy to overlook cluttered spaces. Living in the midst of disorder can be very stressful, but trying to balance remote work and childcare, or beating back concerns about no longer having a job, while trying to maintain a cleaning routine is also anxiety-provoking. There is nothing normal about the situation we are in, so allow yourself the latitude to prioritize.
Mindfulness takes the drudgery out of cleaning. Stop and look. Breathe. Decide what you can take on and then go for it. Focus on one spot and stay present as you work on it. Set a timer for ten or fifteen or thirty minutes and see what you can get done within that time. I guarantee you that you will find yourself in a better place than if you hadn’t done anything at all.
This is not a punishment. It’s an opportunity to create a positive environment in which to ride out the pandemic. I spent Easter Sunday bleaching my kitchen, which seems so antithetical to what we expect to do on a holiday. But for me it was a gift, being present and scrubbing counters and appliances bit by bit, no expectations. Yes, there are still many loose papers on the dining room table, but when I enter the kitchen, I breathe a sigh.
I could say, “it’s not enough,” but you know what? It is more than enough. It’s a semblance of order in a situation that felt out of control, just as the COVID-19 situation is out of our control. We all need some grounding, and I promise you, a clean, uncluttered room lowers stress levels. When I went into the kitchen to get coffee this morning, I thought I was in heaven.
This sense of calm is still with me, even as my son has decided to bake cookies…
By now, I’m hopeful that we all understand the importance of putting physical space between ourselves and those outside of our household in order to avoid transmission of the coronavirus. According to the BBC and its broom trick, you should be able to hold out a broom and not be able to twack another person with it. That means about six feet of distance, as everyone’s been repeating.
But socially distancing ourselves in this time of uncertainty is the last thing we need. In fact, we need to be reaching out to others, trying to bridge the social isolation gap.
It should be easy enough to strengthen our social ties with all the technology that we have available, like Zoom meetings and FaceTime sessions. But all those require at least a little planning, especially when we’re living in comfy clothes, forgoing haircuts and not necessarily getting made up to go out. What we’re missing are all those little interactions that we have in our daily lives: impromptu water cooler conversations, brief chats with a cashier, a quick joke with the server who brings your lunch. There are many ways that we touch each other’s lives than we’re likely conscious of, and those have abruptly stopped.
So if you’re feeling a strange emptiness in your life, there’s a good reason for it.
Now, consider that people are being isolated at a time when many are losing their jobs, worrying about being able to pay their bills, fearing for their health and wondering when all of this is going end. The financial and health concerns are immediate and frightening, but it’s the unknown extent of the damage that continues to keep people up at night.
This is the time when we should be reaching out to our friends and family members, checking in with loved ones and re-establishing our social connections. While “we’re all in this together” might seem like a hackneyed slogan, it is a perfect description of this new reality. As distant as we might feel, particularly those who are forced to shelter-in-place alone, we are experiencing a global pandemic. Never in my own life have I been able to share in such collective concerns, ones that are literally reverberating throughout this entire planet.
This should be something that ties us together. So as you do your best to be safe and keep your distance for the sake of health, please don’t forget to bridge the social and emotional distance that this unique situation has bought upon us.