Coping with a New Diagnosis: Addressing the Emotions


Coping with a New Diagnosis: Addressing the Emotions

By CareerSmart Learning Contributor, October 26, 2015, as published by Healthcare Hot Spot

Teenage Girl Visits Doctor's Office Suffering With Depression

Whether receiving a diagnosis of a life-threatening illness or a chronic disease, newly diagnosed patients may be suddenly flooded with a wide variety of emotions.  How we as healthcare professionals respond to a patient’s emotions can make a difference in what they understand about their condition and how they eventually move on in their new reality.

Recognizing Emotions

Patients often react to a new diagnosis with a range of emotions, including shock, fear, sadness, anger, and anxiety.  Other emotions may be possible in accordance with individual patient differences related to personality, cognitive status, life experience, stage of life, and associated dynamics. 

Emotional states can interfere with the hearing and processing of information.  The healthcare professional must pay attention to the emotional state of the patient in order to determine if they are able to hear information and process it.  While these emotions can be considered as a normal part of the process of dealing with a new diagnosis, feeling overwhelmed or stuck in any one of these emotions over time may indicate a more serious distress. 

Supporting the Expression of Emotions

It is important for the patient to have the opportunity to express emotions and to feel that they have been listened to by the healthcare provider. To help support patients cope with a new diagnosis, both at the time of giving the diagnosis as well as during the time period that follows, the healthcare professional can:

Listen often and listen actively. Newly diagnosed patients can benefit from being able to express how they are feeling. It is not uncommon for patients who undergo initial shock of learning about their diagnosis to not be able to comprehend more information or feel ready to share their emotions. They may need some time to digest the news. Healthcare professionals need to be sensitive to this and allow patients the space they may need and not push too much information at one time. Although we often feel the need to “fix” the problem, the opportunity to “vent” is important so that uncomfortable feelings can be expressed. Active listening lets the patient know that the healthcare provider is really listening. Verbal cues to reinforce that the provider is listening include using words such as “ok” and “yes” or asking a question related to the message being relayed by the patient. Physical cues of active listening include eye contact, body posture, gestures such as head nodding, and facial expressions that demonstrate connection with the patient.

Reflect feelings. Keep in mind that each patient’s perception of the severity of their diagnosis and the potential affect it may have to their life is very individualized and may be influenced by many past experiences. As we reflect the tone of their feelings, we also try to convey acceptance of the feelings being expressed, without passing any judgement. Not only does this reinforce the feeling that the patient is being listened to, but it can also help them clarify what they are feeling. 

Talk about feelings in order to normalize the emotions.  Letting a patient know it is normal to have a range of emotions at this time can help them accept their emotions and possibly open up even more.  One of the toughest yet normal questions you may be asked is, “Why me?” Although we cannot answer this question, this brings a great opportunity to encourage your patient to process other emotions such as guilt, punishment, or anger associated with this question.

Ask the patient to explain what they understand and feel about their diagnosis. This helps determine if there is accurate understanding and allows for education if there are any misinterpretations. Asking how they feel about the diagnosis can help connect the individual with their feelings as well as help identify situations where extra support may be needed.

Over time, it is hoped that the patient will develop a network of emotional support through family, friends, and others.  The healthcare team should continue to be a source of emotional support as well as be a resource for referrals to clergy, social workers, or therapists, as needed.

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References,. ‘At Diagnosis: Dealing With Emotions | Cure Magazine’. N.p., 2015. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.

Just Got Diagnosed – Founded by Gary McClain, PhD,. ‘Healthcare Professionals: Acknowledging Emotional Reactions In Newly-Diagnosed Patients – Just Got Diagnosed – Founded By Gary Mcclain, Phd’. N.p., 2015. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.

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