Breaking Anxiety’s Grip
How author and neuropsychologist Michelle Bengtson found hope and peace amidst anxiety from cancer and other challenges.
Not long after I (Michelle Bengtson) turned in the manuscript for my book “Breaking Anxiety’s Grip,” my doctor called and said, “Dr. Bengtson, I’m sorry to tell you this, but you have cancer.”
I just sat there stunned.
My husband and I were already bracing ourselves for bad news about his cancer. When I got my doctor’s call, we were driving to my husband’s oncologist to get the results of his PET scan. Scott is a three-time cancer survivor, and his latest battle was with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
But now I faced cancer, too, but I wasn’t ready to accept it. I thought, You’ve got the wrong patient. I feel fine.
Yet she soon convinced me of the truth.
Feeling numb and afraid
As the news started to sink in, I felt numb, and the fear started to take over. But I had to push my worries aside to be there for my husband.
I have a long family history of anxiety, and I’ve dealt with it personally. But I’ve also had to address it professionally.
As a board-certified clinical neuropsychologist, I’ve had the privilege of helping patients with a variety of medical and mental health disorders, ranging from ADHD or learning disabilities, stroke or head injury, as well as depression and anxiety, helping them work toward optimal brain functioning.
Many medical conditions contribute to anxiety, so that’s an area I’ve addressed frequently in my practice.
Yet facing my own anxiety-inducing moments, from cancer or otherwise, can still be challenging.
Cancer had already significantly impacted our lives. I lost my mom to lung cancer, and in the same year I was diagnosed, we lost 19 friends and family to the disease.
More than 20 years ago, my husband was diagnosed with stomach cancer and given only a few years to live. Yet, he defied those odds and has also survived two additional kinds of cancer.
Yet with every new scan he faces, we often hold our breath. Fortunately, that day my husband’s scan showed no evidence of recurrence.
But now I had to deal with my own news.
The first thing I did was send out an SOS text to several friends to ask for prayer. They continue to be friends that I draw on for support, and prayer often helps me deal with anxiety.
My doctor told me my next steps was to schedule surgery and then later chemo.
They never actually told me what kind of cancer I was diagnosed with, which underscored the fear and uncertainty. Cancer showed up in multiple places within my body but medically seemed unrelated to each other.
Because the path has not been clear cut, it required me to draw upon my go to source for hope and strength: my faith in God.
How Michelle Bengtson finds hope, strength and peace
I know that not everyone believes in God, but for me, praying and reading God’s promises in the Bible helps me stay grounded.
Promises like Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans for a future and a hope.”
It can be so easy for me to step down that slippery slope into worry and anxiety.
In moments of fear, I reminded myself that my situation did not take God by surprise and that he already knows how he’s going to get me through it. I may not know how I’m going to get through it, but he does. I find strength and hope in him every day.
While I often share some helpful techniques about anxiety with others (see “practical ways to break anxiety’s grip” below), drawing on my faith is the only source that helps see me through 100% of the time.
Chemotherapy and taking my advice
After surgery, I went through chemotherapy for nine months. My condition started to improve, but not knowing the cancer type or outlook continued to add to my fear and anxiety.
I mentioned that “Breaking Anxiety’s Grip” had just come out. And I thought, “Ok, you just wrote a whole book on how to deal with anxiety. Am I going to listen to my own advice?”
In a way, what I wrote became a lifesaver for me.
Ways to break anxiety’s grip
One technique I share with patients is called Thought Stopping. When you are overcome with negative or worrisome thoughts, if you continue to focus on those thoughts, they are just going to get bigger and bigger. But with Thought Stopping, you literally tell yourself to “STOP” and say, “I’m not going to think about this anymore.”
That’s what I did. I told myself to stop thinking about whether they are going to be able to cure the cancer or how this might affect the future for my husband and kids. Instead, I focused on what I could control that day.
I also emphasize that what we focus on tends to grow. So, if I fixated on all the things that were tempting me to worry, it would just lead to more worry.
The fear would especially come with every ache or pain. Has my cancer come back? But if I focused on what was going well, what I could control today, that added to my strength, my hope and my peace. Then I could sleep well and wake up with a better mindset.
How I’ve changed
Cancer has made me appreciate the relationships that I have and to not take them for granted. It has also made me more sensitive to the needs of others.
I would say I have always been a compassionate doctor. I went into neuropsychology because not only was I fascinated by the brain, but I also genuinely care about the health and well-being of others.
But experience is a great teacher. After I personally endured depression and anxiety, and also cancer, I could understand others’ pain in a much more authentic, intimate way, and focus more on their needs, essentially doing for others as I would have wanted others to do for me.
I share more about how to deal with anxiety in my book, “Breaking Anxiety’s Grip.”
Michelle Bengtson’s advice for others
When facing cancer, we need to just take it one day at a time. Take it five minutes at a time when you need to. Try not to live in regret and avoid forecasting the negative in your future.
Stay as positive as you can, while being realistic. Be grateful for what you have today and don’t borrow worries from tomorrow.
For caregivers, recognize that sometimes experiencing physical pain can change someone’s personality. It’s helpful to have compassion and patience for the person going through it.
When we face fear and worry, we need to be intentional to break anxiety’s grip.
Besides controlling our thoughts, I think it is critical to believe in a higher power. Because we cannot fully say no to worry, anxiety, and fear until we decide that we will trust God.
When we open ourselves up this belief, and even to trust God, that can help us smash anxiety’s grip once and for all.
For more about how to begin a relationship with God see Knowing God Personally.
To unlock the power of prayer see Asking God for Help.
Is cancer a punishment from God? Discover the encouraging answer in this article.