How to cope when you receive bad news

How to cope when you receive bad news

Eimear* was on the way home from work when she received the news that would change the life she knew.

Her beloved dad had been diagnosed with cancer. Although she had anticipated the outcome, nothing could prepare her for hearing the words.

‘Mum said she would explain more when I got home but I told her to tell me straight out,’ Eimear recalls.

‘She took a deep breath and simply said: “it’s cancer”.

‘It felt like an out-of-body experience. I thought I could handle it but I had to immediately stop the car. My heart was beating, my breathing was staggered and I didn’t know what to do.

‘It felt like the world was crumbling around me and so was I.’

Looking back, Eimear wishes she was stronger in the moment, but realises there is no guide book to receiving such news.

‘After a while, I calmed down,’ she explains. ‘But my thoughts were all over the place, I didn’t know what to do, say or think. Eventually, I avoided the news totally but it hasn’t made me feel any better.’

Receiving bad news is unfortunately a normal part of life. From work to family, it comes in waves, and we can’t avoid it forever.

However, there are ways we can deal with it and prevent it from consuming us fully.

Coping mechanisms

Behavioural psychologist Dr Nilu Ahmed says our coping mechanisms are learned.

‘We develop coping mechanisms to manage our emotions to allow us to function effectively day to day,’ Dr Nilu tells Metro.co.uk

‘Negative coping strategies often arise from a lack of learning about how to apply adaptive techniques. Perhaps in the past, avoiding or ignoring bad news worked for us.

‘If we have applied these techniques successfully, we are more likely to repeat them.’

Dr Nilu notes avoidance (like Eimear experienced) and denial are two common ways humans deal with negative situations. While this is done to initially protect us, long term it isn’t healthy.

‘Avoidance and denial are actually very helpful in the immediate situation to help prevent us getting overwhelmed,’ she explains. ‘However, over time if they are the only ones we use they can become problematic as they prevent us from actually dealing with the issues.’

On the other hand, obsessively focusing on the matter will also do no good.

‘Thinking in this way way can cause significant increases in anxiety levels,’ says senior therapist Sally Baker.

‘Imagine having a seed in the palm of your hand. When you water the seed it begins to sprout and from that initial green shoot rapidly grows a powerful and all-enveloping vine.

‘The seed represents hearing some bad news and the water you give it represents the attention you pay to that news which reinforces negative thinking. 

‘Very soon the negative thought has grown so much that just like a tangled vine, it surrounds you filling all the available space from floor to ceiling and wall to wall. Negative thoughts allowed to develop in this way quickly dominate until it becomes all you are capable of thinking about.’

Negative thinking patterns

Sally says it’s imperative to decipher our thinking styles and work out which unhealthy patterns we might be falling into.

‘The first style is called the black and white thinker,’ she explains. ‘They generally fail to recognise all the shades of grey in their life and have an all or nothing attitude.

‘The next is the catastrophic thinker, who always thinks the worst and goes to the extremes of negativity. Then there is the over-thinker, who ruminates about everything, including bad news, by thinking and re-thinking – and the outcome is never positive.’

She continues: ‘Identifying what thinking style or even the mix of thinking styles is your default setting is one of the first steps to taking control of your thoughts.

‘Changing a thinking style will take vigilance and insights, but with practice, you can have a thought and decide whether it is helpful thought or not. Interrupt it, and formulate a more helpful positive alternate thought instead.’

Immediate steps for dealing with bad news

Upon hearing bad news, Dr Nilu explains there are steps you can take.

‘Take some deep breaths to ground yourself,’ she advises.

‘Acknowledge the shock rather than trying to run away from it. Think about whether you need more information. Hearing someone has had an accident can range from something quite minor to a tragedy.

‘Taking time to get more information can help cope with the news more effectively and appropriately. If someone has been referred for tests, remind yourself that this is a positive step as tests may provide more information and reduce the current uncertainty.

‘If there are significant changes that arise due to health such as having to reduce workload or stop working, this is a huge change and it will need adjustment – feelings of sadness, loss, anger are all appropriate responses.’

She notes that above all else, give yourself the compassion you deserve.

‘Take a period to accept the change,’ she says. ‘Don’t rush it. Take it slow. Once acceptance has occurred, treat yourself kindly. Do an art class, volunteering, meet a friend and chat or anything that makes you feel better.

‘And always remember, if you are really struggling, please don’t be afraid to seek help from a professional.’

*Names have been changed

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