It must be a mistake. That is Kimberly Williams-Paisley’s reaction when the doctor first tells the family about her mother’s primary progressive aphasia diagnosis. It’s difficult for the human brain to synthesize news it doesn’t want to hear.

Coping with bad news is the topic of this latest installment of our online book club speaking about Kimberly Williams-Paisley’s book, Where the Light Gets In. She writes about her mother’s experience with primary progressive aphasia.

Hearing the News

The doctor explains primary progressive aphasia to Kimberly Williams-Paisley and her siblings on page 70:

Primary progressive aphasia, or PPA,” he said. “Primary means that a communication problem—aphasia—is the first sign of the disease. Progressive means it’s going to get worse. Many stroke victims experience aphasia, but often it’s treatable. From what we heard, PPA isn’t.” This has got to be a mistake, I thought. Explainable. Fixable. Mom looked up at Ash and me again and shook her head more slowly this time, as if she were reading our thoughts. No, she seemed to be saying. It’s not.

Many times, when we receive bad news, our body enters a stress response. We’re trying to take in information quickly because we sense danger. Our hearts beat faster and our breathing quickens. It’s a fight or flight response directed at information rather than an actual predator.

The doctor continues to give information as Williams-Paisley’s brain attempts to push it out rather than incorporate it. On page 70, she continues:

He was treading carefully, as though he knew Mom might detonate at any moment with sadness, anger, fear. In her emotional state, it was hard for her to do any of the talking. His speech was measured, unemotional, calm. I tried to absorb all of it, but denial and anger were taking over. They’re wrong. This doesn’t make sense.

Denial and anger are natural initial responses to bad news.

How to Make Intaking News Easier

PsychologyToday offers helpful advice on how to cope with hearing bad news. Begin by taking control of your breathing. Purposefully fill your lungs with air, hold it, and then release it, trying to slow down your racing heart.

Next, put the bad news in context. In the case of a diagnosis, focus on what you can change at the moment and what you need to be aware of down the line. Consider your resources — such as family and friends — to help you cope with the diagnosis.

The article continues with steps that can be utilized in the subsequent weeks and months, and Williams-Paisley tries many of these in the remaining chapters of the book. But first she needs to let the news sink in, and it’s a difficult moment to get through.

What is your first reaction to bad news?

Image: Tra Nguyen via Unsplash