Right now we are facing unprecedented times, and levels of uncertainty that many of us have never experienced before. Holistic coach Eva Visser, founder of Eva Authentic Living, explores her own personal journey through a cancer diagnosis which led her to understand and define 7 ways to build the resilience we need to navigate uncertainty – something we could use now more than ever.
There will inevitably be several times in our lives when we experience uncertainty. Maybe because we have lost our job and we have no idea how to move forward, or we have suffered from an accident or illness and we do not know how and if we will ever be our normal selves again. As a business owner or entrepreneur we often live in great uncertainty, and as new parents the waters are always uncharted.
We could list a dozen more possible situations where we are confronted with the reality of a life which is going through uncertainty, none more so than right now. And although the level and degree of uncertainty may vary, how we deal with it will remain the same. That’s what I discovered when I learned I had cancer 5 years ago.
“So my thoughts were racing and I felt anger and disbelief at the same time. I remember looking around the room and slowly I became really calm.”
I had never really been ill in my life. I had started my coaching and therapy practice two years before I heard the news, and the interesting thing was that when my oncologist said to me: “You have a malignant tumor in a lymph node behind your heart and it is treatable.”, my first thought was: ‘How is that possible? I have never been ill in my life!’. My second thought was: ‘I have been working super hard for the past two years, next week I have 11 coaching sessions as a result of that, and this guy is telling me I have cancer? No way, this is not the right moment.’.
So my thoughts were racing and I felt anger and disbelief at the same time. I remember looking around the room and slowly I became really calm and I saw my partner and my two kids who were then 3 and 6. Everything in me went in slow motion. I heard their voices and I saw them playing, I saw my husband turn from a cool guy who is always steady into a pile of despair.
I then looked outside of the window and many thoughts came to my mind. And I was sure of one thing: cancer would not stand in the way of my ambition, which at that time was to have a successful coaching practice. I was angry thinking I had to cancel all these sessions I worked so hard for. Three weeks before I had moved into my new studio, and now cancer was disrupting all my ideas and goals.
“My modus operandi was: suppress hopelessness and fight. What can I do, what can I influence in this situation? I was action driven.”
That’s what this pandemic has done to many of us, it has disrupted our lives, it has created change and anxiety and caused an initial reaction of worry, stress and overwhelm. This initial reaction is that of our reptile brain. It reacts to imminent danger and we go into a freeze, fight or flight mode.
It was clear I went initially into fight mode. My modus operandi was: suppress hopelessness and fight. What can I do, what can I influence in this situation? I was action driven.
I also had a lung embolism caused by the tumor and I had to stay in hospital and have a procedure, and the doctors told me the many scenarios that could arise – one of which was going into a coma. After everybody left I was alone in my hospital room and it was already very late. I could not sleep, my mind was racing with thoughts about what the doctors had said.
At 6 o’clock in the morning I saw the clear sky and something happened within me. During that night I had prepared two letters to my children to say goodbye to them as I did not know what would happen to me. I was preparing myself to say goodbye to my kids and to life. And while I was doing that I saw the sky and a deep insight came to me and that was that everything is connected to each other. I am the sky and the sky is me. I am part of nature and nature is part of me. Something changed in me on a very deep level and that insight gave me deep comfort and trust.
“My ego was willing to let go of control, I let go of MY plans and ambitions and I surrendered to this situation and the moment. Anxiety was gone, my fight was gone. I felt a deep peace that everything would turn out well.”
I realised that I was a human being and that I am mortal. That I was facing and feeling my mortality. That realisation had a very liberating effect as I thought: so why fear? Why fear what is in front of me? What happened after was, fear was gone. I felt a deep surrender to life and I said: ‘Life, guide me. I trust you, guide me.’
My ego was willing to let go of control, I let go of MY plans and ambitions and I surrendered to this situation and the moment. Anxiety was gone, my fight was gone. I felt a deep peace that everything would turn out well. As I did not consider that dying would be a BAD thing and living a GOOD thing. I was not in a mind space, I was in a heart space. I trusted life and the illusion of being able to “control” my life was gone.
“That situation taught me that uncertainty is not a BAD thing. Uncertainty is a possibility to go beyond what we believe. Go beyond our comfort zone and learn and grow.”
I am sharing my personal story because that situation taught me that uncertainty is not a BAD thing. Uncertainty is a possibility to go beyond what we believe. Go beyond our comfort zone and learn and grow. When we are pulled out of our comfort zone and have the skills to navigate the first phase which is fear, we land into our learning and growing zones.
If we stay in our comfort zones we do not grow, we are standing still. Life is all about growth. Look how nature does it. It has seasons, it grows new buds in spring and blossoms, and in autumn it let’s go, in winter it reflects and rests to start growing again in spring. Life is a cycle, and we are in a cycle of rebirth.
Beautiful things happen with human beings in periods of uncertainty. It depends on the level of resilience you have developed. We see that people who have trained the resilience muscle are able to adapt to the situation with more ease than people who have the resilience muscle less developed.
“Resilience is what we need to navigate these stressful situations. And it is not something you need to be born with, you can develop it in your life.”
Resilience is the process of adapting well to traumatic and tragic experiences. These can be different from person to person but mostly involve family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. Resilience is what we need to navigate these stressful situations. And it is not something you need to be born with, you can develop it in your life. Based on my own experience and what I have learned through my coaching career I have defined 7 ingredients that can help to develop your level of resilience to navigate any challenging situation, empowering you to grow and connect with your true nature.
1. Slow Down
When I heard that I had cancer I went into fight mode. I became calm and was very focussed. This is what my reptile brain did for me. It pushed away everything that did not matter to be ready for battle.My stay at the hospital helped me to slow down as I was not busy taking care of my family and myself and I had the opportunity to meditate and be silent. When you start to slow down you begin to see things in a different light, instead of fighting, you can accept.
2. Create and Develop Meaningful Connections
Besides food and shelter another main deep need for a human being is connection. We are social beings and in times of distress, change and uncertainty having a network or community around us where we can share our feelings and worries has a soothing effect on us. Being alone or isolating ourselves has the opposite effect. We feel alone which triggers the stress reaction even more. Focus on people who understand you and listen and ask questions. We are lucky we have many ways nowadays to talk and connect.
3. Focus on Your Mental and Physical Well Being
When I faced cancer the only thing I could influence was how I treated myself, what food I could have and how I felt. I could not control the devastating effects of chemo so I was determined to prioritise my physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. I went to different therapists where emotional bodywork and spiritual connection was included. I ate super healthy food and drank lots of healthy drinks to make my body the most inhospitable place for cancer. When everything else is being turned upside down, we always have the power to take care of ourselves in whatever way suits us best.
4. Learn to Navigate Feelings Like Worry, Insecurity, Anxiety and Overwhelm
These feelings are all different faces of fear. As a trained therapist I went for support to my colleagues. As an expert I could not help myself only, I needed extra support to navigate the distress of uncertainty. I opened up to all these feelings every time with meditation, bodywork and silence. I gave it space breathing WITH IT.
5. Create a Flexible Daily Structure and Daily Rituals
I said to my partner that I wanted life to continue as normal as possible. Our kids were very young then so we created days according to their hours. I had very simple habits like cooking healthy meals, having walks and naps. In any situation of uncertainty it helps to bring in an element of routine, some anchors in your day that you can focus around.
Illustrations by Katrien Riks
6. Reflect on What You Find Important and Create Activities That Fuel That
I did not stop working. I gave sessions while I went through the cancer journey. I could do that because it gave me energy. I left behind other business related activities and only gave sessions and made myself available psychologically for new clients because that gave me meaning. Find the things that nourish you most, and do those.
7. Create a Loving Relationship with Yourself
I learned to be more compassionate with myself. At the time my ambition went above anything else. And the experience of being a mortal human being gave me the deepest insight that loving ourselves is our biggest gift to ourselves and to others. My ego was driven and wanted to succeed, my heart said: it is ok to have that ambition AND love yourself. This big heart is not just for others it is yours, so feel and take whatever you need to live a wholehearted life.
Surrender to the Flow of Life
When we are in our head space we might think we can control things by knowing what to do. Uncertainty teaches us something and that is that we have no control over life. We have no control over nature. We are the flow of life and we are nature. So plan less, do less and see what comes to you. You might be surprised when you bring space into your life. Life might give you opportunities without working hard for them, life might teach you something, when we pay attention.
These guidelines can be practiced one step at the time. Take one ingredient and see how that goes. And one last thing. Do not try to do this by yourself. Ask for support. You are not a failure if you ask for support. It is an act of courage. You are brave, worthy and enough. Never forget that, especially in times of uncertainty.
Eva Visser is a trained therapist and holistic coach specialising in female leadership. Her practice centres on connecting with our feminine qualities to lead a more balanced life with greater clarity, purpose and joy.