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Getting an unexpected health diagnosis can flip your world upside down. Upon receiving a serious diagnosis, you must evaluate treatment options and consider how it will affect your life, health, job and finances. On top of all that, you will also need to manage the emotional toll receiving a diagnosis may have on your well-being.
This article explores the general stages of grief one may go through after receiving a serious diagnosis and tips for coping with the news.
The 5 Stages of Grief
Grief is an experience that can completely consume you mentally, physically and emotionally—and it doesn’t just happen with the traditional sense of loss. The grief that accompanies a life-changing diagnosis is complex.
Psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross proposed a framework referred to as the “five stages of grief”: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Consider the following five stages of grief that you may experience following a serious diagnosis:
- Denial—Denial is the act of rejecting reality. It often comes first in the stages of grief because the mind and body have to work to process the significant life change. In this stage, you might downplay the severity of the situation to cope by rejecting pain, ignoring symptoms or hiding symptoms from loved ones.
- Anger—A strong emotion you might experience is anger. This feeling may be directed at yourself, your doctors or even the world. This phase is helpful since anger allows you to start feeling again and examine how you feel about the situation.
- Bargaining—Though this stage isn’t the same as denial, bargaining may feel similar because you’re thinking of how the situation could have gone differently. This is considered the “what ifs” stage, and people often seek a second onion hoping for different results.
- Depression—Grief and depression go hand in hand. You may pull away from loved ones or feel sad or lonely. When faced with a serious diagnosis, you may also be mourning the loss of your former and healthier self and the life that went with it.
- Acceptance—The final stage is achieved when you’ve come to terms with the diagnosis and have stopped any internal fights against it. You accept your life will be different and start taking steps to manage the condition better and improve your health.
These stages are attempts to process change and protect yourself while you adapt to a new reality. Once you’ve cycled through these stages of grief, you’re more likely to be open to coping strategies.
Tips for Coping With a Diagnosis
You’re likely to be flooded with a wide range of emotions when given a serious diagnosis. Everyone responds differently, but consider the following ways to take control of the situation:
- Give yourself time to process the news. You’ll likely need to go through the five steps of grief—which takes time—to work through any emotions. Don’t hold back on sharing your feelings with family members and friends.
- Get the facts. Learning as much as possible about your condition and treatment options is essential. Ask for resources from your doctor or pharmacist and search reputable online sources (e.g., government websites, condition-specific websites and medical journals).
- Create a support system. It can be helpful to have a network of people (e.g., family, friends, neighbors and others with the same diagnosis) to lean on and talk to during your treatment or recovery. Remember that it’s OK to accept help during a difficult time.
- Focus on healthy habits. Talk to your care team to understand the best lifestyle choices, nutrition and exercise options for your condition. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can also help improve your energy level and mood.
- Stick to your daily schedule. Routine is important, and staying busy can positively impact your mental health. Just as you’d schedule time for work or social activities, be sure to include sufficient downtime to recharge.
- Make time for your favorite activities. What has been comforting before your diagnosis will likely still ease any worries. If needed, modify your activities to still participate in them. Don’t dwell on your limitations or compare your situation with how things used to be.
Depending on the diagnosis and your health situation, be open to trying new activities or other coping strategies. For example, journaling or seeking a professional mental health provider can be healthy outlets to help you navigate the condition and move forward mentally.
It isn’t always possible to prepare for life-changing news, and it’s a learning process to figure out how to cope with a difficult health diagnosis. However, you can find a way to adapt to the changes coming with some time and patience.
As you cope with a serious condition, it’s crucial to prioritize your physical, mental and emotional health. If you’re struggling to stay positive most days or are held back by fear and anxiety, it may be helpful to seek professional help. Bring up any concerns to your doctor or use the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline by calling 800-662-HELP (4357).