Today, I tried a new route. Along the river on the crisp icy grass, the sun glazing on my cheeks, I ran, my mind taking me forward, my feet following, slower on the bumps, making sure I was firmly grounded in the mud. Finding my balance, I wanted to protect myself from falling.
The future was not what I was thinking of. The powerful images of the past like movie clips before my eyes. The numbing feeling was cold. My footsteps crunching loudly were taking me to the past.
To be able to remember the past is one of the most amazing functions of the brain. Without it, we would not be able to learn, to plan, to reflect, to correct and to grow. Thinking of pleasant memories gives us warmth and encouragement for the future. But what about the memories that are upsetting and painful? Should we try and forget them to protect ourselves from the pain and trauma? Can they hold us back from moving towards a better future?
As I ran, I heard the ground ice crunching louder. I was reminded of the running footsteps, this time behind me shouting: "Please come back, the surgeon wants to see you". I had had an afternoon of breast examinations. Four years ago, this day, Jan 2, 2013. I ran back to the consulting room. I sat down slowly, frightened, studying the surgeon's face and peeking at the notes, frowning. My breast cancer diagnosis. My three cancerous tumours. My plan for the year ahead. Multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and more surgery. For the coming years, suspicious tumours lingering. Inconclusive results.
The numbness, I felt. The cold, I remember. Ella, my daughter who was just under three years of age, what I observed. The uncertainty blurring before my eyes. The fear accelerating. Perhaps I should breathe, sit down, and be in the present. It was late when I got home. Ella was waiting for me.
The brain has an amazing capacity to inhibit the impact of traumatic experiences and it primarily does this to protect us from the psychological pain that they can cause. We are motivated to try and forget the painful past so that we can 'move forward'. But can forgetting or burying the painful experiences of past help us 'move on'? Research has increasingly shown that suppressing fearful and anxiety-related thoughts and experiences can exaggerate their adverse impact on our health, leading to physical illness. The more we suppress unwanted emotions the more sensitive we can become towards them as we remain vigilant to suppress them, and not process them. On the other side, research also shows that dwelling on fearful and trauma-related experiences can increase the risk of clinical anxiety and depression. So how do we find the balance?
Four years since the trauma of my diagnosis, it is true to say that I continue to live with fear, anxiety and uncertainty. Like the background music to the movie of my life, it is there, sometimes louder, other times humming softly. Every scan, every appointment, every suspicious symptom, every result is an emotional roller coaster that I endure. The after-math of trauma and continuing treatment related post-traumatic stress, fatigue and impairments in cognitive functions linger. And I am not alone.
Neuroscience research shows that the brain has a remarkable ability to change. It can practice change in structure and function through the building of new neural connections towards psychological well-being and flexibility. Finding my balance, I am practicing to be-friend my fears and embrace them, because they are an important part of me, signalling what is salient to me. My painful past, it can make me stronger, more flexible, and grateful. I am learning how to practice resilience by not suppressing my painful past, and apprehensive 'now', but using it to grow, to plan, to correct and to reflect. My vulnerability may limit my ambitions but I have a solid spring board to fly from.
My past, please welcome my future.
Nazanin Derakhshan is the Director of the Centre for Building Resilience in Breast Cancer. If you would like to join the Centre's private educational support group please message her on the link above.
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