3 Things to Do When You’re Freaked Out

How to use the neuroplasticity of your brain to shift from fear to focus

Here’s the situation: I’m an expert on stress management. I conduct workshops and appear on TV telling people how to stay calm when things are tough. But I’m freaking out.

My dermatologist just gave me a diagnosis: Melanoma on right cheek. Extensive surgery required: general anesthesia, skin grafts, possible damage to facial and eye nerves, scarring, long recuperation.

My brain spins off at mega-speed: My precious appearance – this is how I make my living! How will I look on TV ?  What will my clients think of me? Will my grandkids be afraid of me? What if the cancer has already spread?

My blood pressure is usually in the low/normal range. When they check my blood pressure after I get the news, it’s off the charts. I know and believe that inner beauty is what’s important. I know…but/and… 

Yeah, I’m freaking out. What to do…? 

Time to take my own advice. Practice what I teach. Walk my talk.  Pause. Breathe. Just take one minute. Find an oasis in the overwhelm.

Okay, better now. I get it. I need to do three things:

  1. Face the facts, including my fears.
  2. Use my brain power to change my emotional channel from frenzied fear to realistic action.
  3. Ask for – and use – support.


A) The Facts:

  • I do have cancer on my right cheek. It’s melanoma. Different from the zillion other skin cancers they froze off. This can spread.
  • Lying on my driveway lathered in baby oil and iodine as a teenager was really a bad move. That’s what caused this.
  • Surgery is required. It will involve skin grafts, pain, possible nerve damage, and lengthy recovery period.
  • My surgery is scheduled for a week from Wednesday at Smilow Yale-New Haven Hospital.

B) My fears:

  • My face really will be messed up.
  • I won’t ever feel comfortable presenting in public again – no TV interviews, no retreats, no face-to-face clients.
  • People will shun me because I’ll look ugly.
  • The cancer has already spread.

2. Use my brain power to change my emotional perspective

For decades I’ve taught about the neuroplasticity of the brain. I know I have the power to choose which emotional channel I want to be on. Right now I’m on the I’m afraid channel, which is a definite downer for me. I feel it in my tightened face, my turbulent stomach, the fever blisters popping out on my lips  I haven’t had them in years.

Time to use one of my 60-second strategies – time to change the channel! From what to what? From I’m afraid to something that’s actual, not fantasy or wishful thinking.

Got it! They told me the malignancy is in the early stages. I’ll go to the They caught it on time channel.

That already feels different. I’m not in dire straits, I’m just having an operation.

3. Ask for – and use – support.

Even though part of me wants to just go away, hide out, manage in my usual calm, competent manner, I have an opportunity to be honest (transparent is the big word now), let people know what’s going on, and ask for support.

A few days ago I took action on that. The results are amazing.

  • My office-mate David promised “I’ll bring you matzoh ball soup.”
  • ICF coach buddies Karin, Sue and Annie, are sending Reiki.
  • Co-worker Luis offered perspective, “You’re lucky you have a hospital to go to. Better than those children in Syria.”  
  • My five sibs and their families are sending tons of prayer.
  • Friend Mira who has a degenerative muscle disease, “I can drive again. Let me know if you need to go anywhere.”
  • Dick, my CAPA pal, “I’m not much on prayer, but much light to you.”
  • Daughter-in-law Alice, “Whatever. Just text me.”

The surgery is a week away. I’m still doing the 1-2-3 steps. It’s not a won and done deal. When I’m afraid surfaces, I breathe, take time to face the current facts, and choose my channel.

When I touch my beloved wrinkled face, I remember the note that Melissa gave to me when she finished my EKG at the pre-op visit last Friday: Scars are tattoos with a better story. 

Yep, I’m a lucky critter. Lots to be thankful for.