4 Effective Stress Coping Strategies To Avoid Burnout And Cope With Your Child's Cancer

By Jennifer Day, Executive Coach and Author, London UK

Holly had been diagnosed with childhood leukaemia at the age of one. She was now six and, according to the headmaster at her brothers’ school, (where I was counsellor) the pressures involved were taking their toll on the whole family. When Holly’s mother Jill contacted me however, it was not because of Holly’s condition. Jill had reached her limits she told me, because of Brian, her husband who had become uncommunicative, withdrawn, and apathetic to the extreme.

No matter how hard she tried, Jill felt she couldn’t get through to Brian, and she was at a loss for what to do. Their sons Joe and Scott were both in their teens and becoming increasingly and respectively belligerent and sullen, not, Jill believed, because of their adolescent stage but as a result of their father’s passive behaviour and inaccessible demeanour. She herself felt neglected and emotionally abandoned and the atmosphere at home was becoming so stressful she was considering divorce. However, because she couldn’t see how she and the children could manage without Brian’s income, she told me she felt trapped and confused about what to do and she needed some help to get to grips with her feelings and to gain some clarity on what her next steps should be. I responded that I would need to meet with both her and Brian if I was to be of any help. It was only at this point she informed me of Holly’s illness, almost as a ‘by-the-way’.

At our first meeting, Brian appeared broody and resentful, and Jill was clearly anxious. After several unsuccessful attempts encouraging him to share his perspective, I eventually asked Brian whether he wanted to keep his family together. It was as if a dam had opened; once he finally started talking it seemed like he would never stop. He claimed his withdrawal and apathy was a combination of overwork and depression about the tenuousness of Holly’s medical condition. He said he had always been afraid of terminal illness, having lost both his parents to cancer, and when his little princess was diagnosed his worst fear was realised. He told me that even though Holly’s prognosis was good, he couldn’t shake his dread of the worst-case scenario and his feeling of hopelessness.

As time passed and the demands of her treatment increased he felt a mounting pressure to be strong for Jill and the children yet he didn’t know how. He did what many people do in those circumstances; he buried himself in his work. Soon after, the economic climate exacerbated the pressure and he had to work longer and longer hours just to keep his job. By the time he got home in the evening he was in no fit state to be supportive to anyone else and having to face the side-effects of chemotherapy on his little girl was just too much. All he wanted to do was scoop her up and take her away from it all, but instead he felt completely useless, unable to save his little Holly. Rather than lose control he closed down, although inside him he feared he could fall apart any day. “Then what would happen to the family?” he said, angrily. “Jill thinks I am not supportive now, but wait till I just can’t take the pressure any more – then she’ll see lack of support!” At this point Jill burst into tears.

Do you recognise any part of this scenario? Brian is one of thousands of people struggling not only to deal with a child’s illness but simultaneously having to support a family in the current sink-or-swim economic environment, never mind trying to juggle the normal demands of family life. Along with many he is not managing very well at all and will almost inevitably ‘burn out’ in the process – and either lose his job through compromised performance, lose his marriage through (in Brian’s case) non-participation, or end up having a full-on mental breakdown.

A recent study which didn’t even consider the added pressures that families such as Brian and Jill’s were under, found that people putting in more than 40 hours a week are six times more likely to suffer from burnout, an ever-increasing likelihood as more and more companies are demanding excessive additional hours from staff. After redundancy initiatives are carried out, the people who remain, such as Brian, are left with oft-impossible workloads. Should they happen to have any additional stress, the pressure can become unbearable. A depressing scenario indeed!

Best-selling author Dr. Joan Borysenko has been studying the 'burn-out' phenomenon recently. "Burnout is a disorder of hope. It sucks the life out of competent, hardworking people. You lose motivation and vitality," says the psychologist, "So many of my clients have hit rock bottom, their spirit is gone, there’s no smile and no joy in their eyes." Sound familiar? Burnout is even more common amongst those living with a family member with terminal illness and ironically, even more critical to address because the patient’s illness will only be exacerbated by stress, their own and the stress experienced by those around them.

Whether you, or someone you know, are headed for a full-blown burnout or there is just the possibility of it on the horizon, some real-time practical stress-coping strategies would not go amiss!

This is what I began working on with Jill and Brian, simply because only if they got their own stress response under control enough that they could think clearly and more objectively, would they be able to look at and deal with their difficult situation from a perspective that reflected what they truly want for themselves and their family. Even more importantly, the sooner they got their stress under control, the better it would be for Holly and her condition.

Brian was closer to burnout than he knew and Jill was headed that way too, so our work together came none too soon. For most people, unfortunately once they have begun descending down the slippery slope of burnout the symptoms are very often confused with depression.

This all too often leads to anti-depressants or other drugs being prescribed that yield little or no result - because there is no medication that can cure burnout. The only cure for burnout is a change in lifestyle, a change that begins with recognising and understanding the ‘first line of dysfunction’ which is the stress response; what, when, and how stress effects you. Jill and Brian were, in our second session, students of this - their own stress response.


Negative pressure and stress triggers parts of the brain to function in survival or defensive mode, causing the frontal lobes—responsible for creativity, problem solving and self-evaluation, to name but a few abilities—to essentially shut down. The result is that anyone experiencing perpetual stress will lose the ability to see the big picture, to make objective assessments, or have mindful responses driven by what they value. Instead they will start acting and reacting in either kneejerk, jaded, habitual, or apathetic ways, – all reactions driven by negative emotions. Brian and Jill typified this scenario.

All of this had placed them in a wicked cycle; they had been trying harder and harder to solve their issues but getting further and further away from a solution! If you are already on this downward spiral, the emotional symptoms you may experience include anxiety, over-reaction, disengagement and being less in touch with emotions, loss of motivation, despondency, negativity and a sense of hopelessness.

Physically, you may complain of insomnia, nausea, tension aches (neck, stomach, back, head, etc.) and feeling exhausted. Although these symptoms may seem natural under the circumstances you are experiencing, your body cannot indefinitely handle such pressure and will eventually collapse or burn out. Additionally, if you have young children you will also find them mirroring or acting out your di-stress in their own, often traumatic ways!

Whether or not you have identified that someone you love (or you yourself) is at risk for burnout

you cannot go wrong building your own and your family’s resilience to stress. Here are a few tips that Jill and Brian adopted and that can easily be integrated into any family situation (for the most effective results, practice them yourself for a few weeks before you share them with your partner and family):

(1) Learn to recognize the difference between positive stress and negative stress. Eu-stress—positive stress—feels good, invigorating end energizing. Di-stress—negative stress—feels draining and is accompanied by worry, anxiety and tension.

Brian’s favourite trick: Set an alarm on your phone or watch to remind you to keep checking in with yourself every half-hour: How do you feel? Know that whatever you feel underlies and drives your thinking and your behaviour.

(2) When in stress (or di-stress), STOP what you’re doing! If you’re in a meeting or an interaction with someone, excuse yourself to go to the restroom for two minutes), or if you’re alone just stop your thoughts. Breathe slowly; extend the out breath (4 counts in, 6 counts out) and shift your internal state to a positive focus BEFORE you do or say anything else. Focus on something simple you can appreciate, like nature or a memory of a nature experience. FEEL appreciation, in your body. Each time you shift your internal state in this way, you teach your brain new ways to access your more creative, wise self in times of di-stress.

Jill’s favourite way to practice this: for 3 minutes every morning before getting up, she
thinks of five things she appreciates about her life and FEELS the appreciation, in her chest.

(3) For long-term relief, shift your lifestyle, attitude and priorities, beginning with simple steps such as massage, coaching sessions, regular deep breathing, making a gratitude list, or Jill’s favourite thing to do with the children: a nature walk – even if it’s just in a small park. Do something caring for yourself every day, no matter how small it is – it can be something as small as playing a piece of music you like or smiling to yourself in the mirror.

(4) A practical way to remember how to shift your internal state for more insights, peace of mind and/or well-being is a 3-part process that make it easy for children too; the 3 R’s.

  • RECOGNISE that you are feeling stress, tension or just not good.
  • RELEASE the tension, wherever you are feeling it. Find it in your body and let it go. This may require a short run, clenching and un-clenching your fists, or even writing down – or for kids, drawing - how you feel.
  • RELAX into a positive emotional state. Drop your attention down into your chest area, your breath and your heart. Slow down your breathing and focus on activating or recalling a feel-good state, think of something that makes you want to smile….. then smile! Enjoy the feeling, before going back to address whatever issue you had, if you must (you will find you have a more insightful attitude!)

For Jill and Brian, using and integrating the above mentioned ‘tools’, meant they slowly but surely began to feel and behave differently towards each other and the children. As they better understood their own effect on each other and their family – and made the enlightening discovery that they have a choice about how they feel and that most of the time a positive choice is not that difficult to make – they felt stronger.

Jill said, "I feel so much more in charge now. Instead of feeling helpless I feel empowered and I am able to stay calm with the children, And with Brian!"

Brian said, "I have a lot more energy now. I also realize I have control over how I perceive things and I don’t have to feel so anxious and overwhelmed. It’s quite amazing that it really is so simple."

The more they practised and applied the tools, the more internally balanced they felt, the better their brains worked and the more their perceptions and behaviour became aligned with the way they wanted to be. This grew to be easier and easier, the more they integrated and habituated the tools in daily life: this time it became an upward spiral instead of the downward one they had been in for so long.

Jill said, "We are doing much better as a couple and as a family! I’ve noticed it’s having a really positive effect on Holly and the boys too! She is responding with much less stress to our hospital visits and seems to need less attention. And the boys smile a lot more – even to each other!"

Brian added, "Yes, so now we just have to keep at it, keep using these tools every day until they become as natural as brushing teeth! It shouldn’t be too hard as it always feels good!"

Human beings are designed to function at our best when we feel good. Running on overdrive and adrenalin may often seem necessary, but at the end of the day it will only run us onto the ground, literally burning us out like overused, neglected engines. Conversely, when we feel good and are well taken care of, we function like well-oiled, super-charged engines—much more likely to relate better, handle difficult situations, be more creative and even heal from health issues!

Jennifer Day teaches and coaches parents, executives, families and teams to help themselves build resilience to stress and reach higher levels of emotional intelligence. She developed AEM – Applied Emotional Mastery®, a methodology for practical, ‘on the go’ emotional self-regulation.


She is the author of six books published in more that ten languages.