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Facing Difficult Emotions with Cancer: Do You Stuff, Flee or Flip Out?

You might live more fully by learning to manage unpleasant emotions


What’s your go-to strategy when you’re feeling angry, sad, hurt, or afraid? Maybe you stuff these emotions down deep so they rarely surface. Perhaps you wolf them down with a supersize order of fries, or kill a few beers. Maybe you run, literally wearing down the tread on your shoes to escape. How about a Netflix™ binge, or gaming marathon?


When you’re living with cancer, you’ll probably spin through a wheel of emotions rivaling any carnival game. (Round and round and round she goes, where she stops, nobody knows!) During times of stress, some emotions (especially the more challenging ones) may seem more intense. We all find ways to cope, but not all coping strategies are healthy or helpful. While stuffing or ignoring unpleasant emotions may be a temporary avoidance tactic, in the long run, these behaviors will contribute to your distress. Over time, increased distress can take a toll on both your mental and your physical health.

Emotions are not positive or negative; they are simply different aspects of being human.


Emotions—what some might call the good the bad and the ugly—make life meaningful. That concept may feel strange to you. Many of us have been taught that such emotions as anger, fear and sadness are negative, unhealthy states, which is simply not true. Every emotion serves us in some way and adds to the texture of being fully alive. By providing us with important information about ourselves, our relationships and our surroundings, emotions help us to make decisions and take action. Studies show that pleasant emotions (happiness, surprise, joy) improve problem-solving skills, motivate us to learn and achieve more, and build resilience. Unpleasant emotions are equally as important as the pleasant ones. They cue us to take a closer look at matters that affect our well-being.


When facing a cancer diagnosis, you have every reason to feel scared, angry, confused and miserable. Likewise, you have the right to feel happy and seek laughter (which can be especially healing during times of duress). Keep in mind emotions come and go. If you don’t cling to them, unpleasant emotions will pass. By releasing the energy of tough emotions, you also release stress, making room for rest and calm.


It takes courage to work with challenging emotions.


When you become aware of a difficult emotion, these steps may help you to become more skilled at processing and regulating it in a beneficial way.

  • Sit with the emotion and feel it fully.

  • Don’t judge or label the emotion.

  • Let the emotion wash through you. Its intensity many diminish as you do so.

  • Try to identify where you are feeling physical discomfort while being with this emotion. Can you soften those areas of your body and release some of the tension?

  • If the emotion deepens or adds to your distress, take a break. Don’t feed the intensity.

  • If you feel stuck and cannot stop ruminating while sitting with the emotion, try journaling about it. This form of self-expression might help to shift your outlook.

  • If you feel overwhelmed, you may find it helpful to ask your medical team for a referral to a professional mental health provider who can help you work through your emotions and thoughts.

How to Access CanSurround

You can access CanSurround through your health care provider (cancer center or physician).  To learn whether or not your provider is a CanSurround partner, please complete this form.

Psychosocial Support for People living with Cancer



Firestone, L. (2016, January). Should you feel or flee your emotions? [Web log comment.] Retrieved from, December 12, 2016.


Fredrickson, B. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology. American Psychology, 56(3): 218-226.


Greenberg, L. S., (2004). Emotion-focused therapy. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 11, 3-16.


Maisel, E. R. (2016, January). Day 8: Henry Shukman on Buddhism and healing. [Web log comment.] Retrieved from, December 8, 2016.


Rodriquez, T. May 1, 2013.  Negative emotions are key to well-being. Retrieved from, December 9, 2016.


Shpancer, N. (2010, September.) Emotional acceptance: Why feeling bad is good. [Web log comment.] Retrieved from, December 13, 2013.

Staik, A. Emotion checklists: Identifying your feelings—pleasant or not. [Web log comment.] Retrieved from, December 8, 2016.

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