Mesothelioma Caregivers: Managing Emotions in a Crisis
- Cancer & Caregiving
- February 17, 2016
Bad weather situations are relatively common this time of year. Before winter storm Jonas dropped more than two feet of snow on New York and Washington, D.C., in January, it had an appointment in our rural community in southeast Kentucky.
We had a minimal amount of snowfall compared to areas in the eastern states, but the 18 inches of snow and half an inch of ice we received crippled our community. My kids worried about the loss of power.
My son who has asthma was my biggest concern.
If he needed a breathing treatment, I couldn’t give him one. My personal worries turned to concern for others who might be facing a more serious illness such as mesothelioma during an emergency. What should a caregiver do when a crisis hits?
If you’re a mesothelioma caregiver, having a go-to plan to handle an unexpected crisis is important. Controlling you emotions during difficult times is also a useful skill. The path to overcoming a crisis starts with how you first react to it.
Reacting to a Crisis
As a mother, I’m supposed to have all the answers, but I was unsure of what to do during the storm. My family had the luxury of a backup wood heating system, but for those who didn’t, life was miserable. Impassable roads and downed power lines trapped people in their homes for days without power while temperatures dropped below freezing.
Providing care means fulfilling the needs of your loved ones, even in the midst of a full-on crisis. Be it bad weather, a health scare or another type of crisis, the situation is defined by how we respond to it.
As caregivers, others look to us to define how they react to a situation. If you’re aware of a serious predicament, properly managing your emotions can diffuse the situation and stop the spread of panic.
Caregivers of mesothelioma patients might add medication, respiratory needs, doctor contact information and other important needs to their list of concerns in a crisis situation. Meeting the needs of your loved one is top priority, regardless of what type of crisis might present itself.
Managing Your Emotions
Understanding how to manage your emotions may be the first step in diffusing a crisis situation.
I learned some helpful emotion management techniques from the work of Dr. Arlie Hochschild, professor emerita of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. She is a famous sociologist and a respected research giant in the psychological community.
Hochschild coined the term emotion work, which she defines as “consciously intending to alter a feeling or emotion.” A flight attendant, for example, does emotion work to calm passengers after rough turbulence, even if he or she may also be worried.
Regardless of how flight attendants truly feel, it is their job to attend to passengers and make them feel safe. Similarly, an important part of a mesothelioma caregiver’s role is staying positive and offering emotional support, even when the prognosis is poor or a treatment isn’t working.
During storm Jonas, my family looked to me for cues on how to respond to the situation. Showing them my fear would have ignited their own fears and made the situation much worse.
Hochschild describes two types of emotion work:
- Evocation is a “cognitive desire to feel an emotion that is absent.” When my kids were scared of the storm, I pretended to feel happy they had days off from school rather than expressing my fears about my son’s breathing treatments and keeping us warm and fed.
- Suppression is a “cognitive focus on an undesired feeling that is present.” By being aware of my own feelings of fear, I was able to suppress those feelings and present a more positive and collected outlook to my family.
Instead of expressing my worries, I gave calming cues. My family responded by remaining calm as well. Rather than wondering how we might keep warm or find food to eat, my kids were playing cards, coloring and planning to build a snow man. My husband and I sat by the fire chatting.
Useful Techniques for Emotion Management
Doctors and nurses often have to manage their emotions in a work setting, just as a mesothelioma caregiver needs to manage emotions at home. According to Hochschild, there are three ways in which people can manage their emotions:
- Cognitive: We can change our emotions by changing the thoughts and images that service our feelings. When faced with the recent winter storm, I stopped seeing the storm and power loss as a weather nightmare. Instead, I thought of it as “unplugged” time with my family. Rather than focusing on the fact that we were without power and my children had needs that I might not be able to meet, I focused on who I had surrounding me and the time we were spending together.
- Bodily: We can alter the way we feel about something by focusing on physical symptoms of emotion such as breathing, heart rate and tremors. Making a conscious effort to slow your breathing has a calming effect. When our power was out, my heart raced as I looked over at my son’s breathing treatment machine. I closed my eyes and focused on breathing in deeply, and slowly exhaling, which calmed my rapid heartbeat as well.
- Expressive: Changing our outward expression of emotion can change the emotion. This is the classic “fake it ‘til you make it” technique. If you want to feel happy, try smiling on purpose. When I wanted my kids to be calm, I pretended to be calm, and it worked! Soon my panic and fear transformed into calming nurturance.
Caregivers have more than just physical care placed on their shoulders. Maintaining the emotional well-being of your loved one also falls into your hands.
As a caregiver, the emotions begin with you. If you present a sense of calm, your loved ones can remain calm as well.
Knowing how to control emotions is a useful asset in any caretaker’s toolbox, and emotion work techniques can help. Handling emotions first frees caretakers to do their most important work — taking care of those they love.
Melanie is currently pursuing a Master's degree at the University of the Cumberlands. She has a Bachelor of Science in psychology from the University of Phoenix. Her father was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 1992. She is dedicated to writing about her unique experience with the rare disease.