Feeling stressed and overwhelmed?

These tips from Psychologist Lesley Howells may help

Lesley Howells
14 May 2020

We are Lynne and Emma, specialist pancreatic cancer nurses.

Today we have a guest blog Lesley Howells, who is a Lead Psychologist and Consultant Clinical Psychologist at Maggie’s. She discusses how to manage our emotions when we are feeling overwhelmed.

We recognise that there is a lot of stress, anxiety and overwhelming feelings when you are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. These feelings are understandable but can become overwhelming if not managed, and affect the way we cope.

Lesley outlines some simple ideas and strategies for coping when things get too much.

Managing feeling overwhelmed

Reach out

Resilience in tough times is all about asking for help, reaching out.

Share your worries with people you trust. Putting difficult thoughts and feelings into words is one of the most powerful ways of finding a helpful and confident mindset and strength you might not realise you had. By having the courage to share your distress and difficult thoughts, you are offering others in your family or circle of friends, the confidence to share their own concerns and so feel less alone. Then together you can find workable solutions or simply be present with each other, providing the extraordinarily valuable space to be fully heard and not judged.


Pause to anchor yourself in the here and now, rather than being swept away by troubling thoughts and feelings. Our minds can feel like a shaken-up snow globe in tough times. So pause and let the swirling blizzard in your mind settle so you have clear space to decide how you want to respond helpfully to whatever you are up against, rather than feeling completely overwhelmed.

Feeling fearful when in the middle of unexpected change is normal. The trick is to pause, and expect and allow these natural worries to ebb and flow, without getting entangled in them. Research says that a difficult emotion will only last 90 seconds if you don’t fuel it with added thinking and self-doubt – try it and see!

Pauses take all shapes and forms. For example:

  • Simple mindful breathing exercises – read more on the Maggie’s website
  • Get fully absorbed in your senses by stopping to notice – five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can smell, two things you can touch and one thing you can taste.
  • Pause – with poetry, prayer or song lyrics.
  • Think about things that can distract you from undermining and sabotaging thoughts, such as the sound of a waterfall or stream.
  • Pauses can be however long you wish. The important thing is that you pause!

Be open to change

Rather than be fearful, be open to the possibilities and emotional growth that change can bring. At a pace you can cope with, and with the support of your family, try to ‘move’ and adapt to these changing times rather than desperately hold on to a fixed view of yourself, your skills or how things should be. Now is the chance to try out new ways of being you. The values that underpin you as a person will stay the same, but you now have the chance to try things in different but still fulfilling ways.

A poem that many of my patients find really useful, can help all of us. Read it, then read again, and allow it to sink in.

Come to the Edge (by Christopher Logue, The Poetry Pharmacy)

Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
And they came,
And he pushed,
And they flew.


Routine offers certainty when everything feels so uncertain.

It’s really important that you keep to your familiar work and family routines as far as possible, wherever you are, whether you’re undergoing treatment or having a pause.

Our confidence slips and sadness creeps in, if we let go of routine. Keep your time structured, filled with achievable, meaningful and enjoyable tasks, so you still have a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.


At the end of each day write down ten things for which you are grateful. Yes, ten things! Thinking of ten things encourages you to remember not just the ‘stand out’ pleasant things but the more plentiful, often more subtle sources of pleasure that often get overlooked in the business of our day, or overshadowed by darkness and difficult stuff. These might include watching the antics of the sparrows at your bird table, the feel of hot water, smell and feel of fresh bedlinen. This isn’t about ‘positive mental attitude’! It is about finding balance and not losing sight of the goodness in this world that continues, despite tough times.

How mindfulness can help

Mindfulness uses breathing and meditation to change the way you think and feel about a situation. Research shows that mindfulness can help people with cancer and their loved ones bring extra richness to their lives despite the physical and emotional stresses they face. It helps people live with uncertainty without getting swept away by difficult thoughts. Mindfulness is like a gentle ‘workout’ for the brain to improve psychological ‘fitness’ particularly when times are tough.

It is a mix of stillness, awakened curiosity, contentment and human connection. The chance to relish the subtle pleasures in life, and learn how to ‘move’ with the reality of pain, discomfort and difficult emotions, rather than struggle against them. It gives the space to pause and choose how you wish to respond to life rather than be trapped in ruts of habitual reaction.

Many thanks to Lesley for offering some techniques in managing overwhelming thoughts. Hopefully these methods can help in providing a break from the psychological stresses you may be experiencing, and bring a sense of calm to confront any challenges that you may have to face.

Read more about mindfulness, including other exercises to try on the NHS website. You can also speak with your local cancer information centre or Maggie’s centre to access group sessions that they may run locally.

And Maggie’s also have more information about dealing with the emotions of having cancer.

You can also speak with your medical team or your GP. We have information on our website too, and you can speak to one of our specialist nurses on the Support Line.

Thanks for reading our blog, take care of yourselves and we will be back next week.

Lynne and Emma


Updated June 2022