Mast Cell Tumor: (Part II) Emotions, Check.

Decision-making under anxiety, stress, or fear can distort our choices

Just Fix it
Ten minutes into my first attempt at understanding Mast Cell Tumors (MCT’s), I was ready to join the National Canine Cancer Foundation. Demonstrating solidarity as well as one’s level of commitment to fighting a cause can only properly be defined by the quantity of color appropriate apparel and paraphernalia; I  swore Mahana, Travis (he didn’t know, yet.), and myself to a lifetime of keychains, bracelets, dog gear, and clothes adorned with pink paws. Oh yes, we were COMMITTED!

Three minutes after my pledge to canine cancer and declaration of love for the color pink, I was lost in an MCT discussion board thread and onto another mission when I read:

…my neighbor uses Lawn Doctor and the smell gives me a headache for days! I hate to think what it does to animals who get it on their paws (and kids who play on the grass)… I use an organic lawn care service. Our neighbors, however, do not and you just know that when it rains and the dogs go for their walks that they pick up all of the chemicals on their noses and paws.

Of course, the answer is in the grass! After all, Mahana didn’t have MCT’s in Arizona. There’s no grass in Tucson. Portland has grass. Blame the grass!

Armed with this new tidbit of information, Project: Cure Canine Cancer  was now prepared for Phase I: “Pesticide Free Parks.” All I need is to 1) make a list of all the pesticides used at every Portland area park and dog park, 2) find out which of those pesticides are linked to canine cancer,  and 3) begin an online petition to adopt pesticide free management policies on publicly managed spaces. Easy, 1-2-3- go! I grabbed my phone, dialed Portland Parks & Recreation, frantically scribbled questions onto a piece of scratch paper, and then… hung up.

What am I doing!?

Better to Feel it
Defusing, mediating, and repairing other peoples emotions is what I do best. But, resolving my own internal conflict is another matter.  In this situation, I just want to hurry and fix the problem. Subconsciously, I am unsuccessfully trying to fool my body into believing that if I can fix it fast enough then I can avoid having to feel it—fix it before you feel it!  The thought of losing Mahana makes me feel helpless, vulnerable, not in control, and sick to my stomach. Who wants to feel that!? I should have give myself permission to sit and process how I was feeling. Instead, I came directly home after receiving Mahana’s diagnosis with a mission to search and destroy.

It’s important to slow down (that’s a hard one for me), to check in and mindfully acknowledge how we are feeling. It’s not that we can’t be upset or anxious, it’s that we need to consciously acknowledge and accept that we are. Whether we like it or not, emotions, cognition, and decision-making are involved in a complicated love affair. Science, yes, even the hard sciences acknowledges the dichotomies of this love affair in suggesting that effective decision-making requires motivation and meaning provided by emotional input while simultaneously suggesting the opposite as well, that brain-damaged patients can make better decisions than normal individuals.1 What does this mean?  Ignoring emotions does not translate to having control of our emotions or of the situation. If emotion regulation is crucial in reducing emotion-linked biases2 then by giving ourselves permission to sit with our different emotions in order to identify, interpret, and therefore better understand them will help us towards making better choices.

Not to Decide, is to Decide
When I do slow down to take a breath, refocus, and do an emotional check, it’s clear that my anxiety is related to Tuesday’s surgery. I don’t feel good about it. But, I don’t know why, yet. In 2009, an experiment was conducted at Emory University on the neural impact of external information, such as advice from an expert, on decision-making during times of uncertainty. While undergoing fMRI scanning, participants were asked to make  financial decisions under uncertainty and were free to choose whether to follow or to ignore advice from a financial expert.3 The results showed that when confronted with expert advice, the independent decision-making parts of many participants’ brains shut down, and they “offloaded” the burden of the decision-process to the expert.4 Am I like these participants? Did I just shutdown and automatically defer to my vet as the expert in this decision? But, wait, what decision? I didn’t even realize that I needed to make a decision or rather by scheduling her surgery had just made a decision.

Be an Advocate and Show up
Mahana can’t advocate for herself. Therefore, it’s even more important for me to be her advocate by empowering myself with accurate information. It’s crucial to ask questions, to know which questions to ask, not only of our doctors but of ourselves. Decision-making under anxiety, stress, or fear can distort our choices, making us less likely to take in the information we need. All I want to do is get online, read survival stories, and focus on the good. I don’t know what I am dealing with, yet. If I am being honest with myself, I am a little afraid to find out. Without emotional self-awareness, any research attempts will most likely focus on anything that agrees on the outcome we want. It’s important to acknowledge our (human) tendency to incorrectly process challenging news and to push ourselves to hear the bad as well as the good.5

Sit. Stay. Part III coming soon…