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How to manage anxiety during treatment

Published: 29 Jan 2018

Being anxious is absolutely normal, particularly after being diagnosed with cancer or facing chemo treatment.  Sometimes however, it can develop to the point where it is affecting your daily life.  In this blog, we'll take a look at what anxiety is as a mental illness, and tips on how to manage this common problem.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety happens when we are scared or apprehensive.  It isn’t surprising that after diagnosis, a lot of sufferers experience anxiety and panic attacks.   The symptoms of anxiety are both mental and physical. 

Anxiety can be mild with symptoms resulting in you feeling ‘on edge’. However panic attacks are often seen as terrifying and come about suddenly as an extreme combination of all these symptoms. Sometimes these can be so intense that people think they are having a heart attack, a stroke or even are about to die.  

The science

These attacks occur because our natural ‘fight or flight’ response has gone into overdrive.  Normal anxiety can be understood as your body preparing for potential threats, releasing adrenaline to supercharge your reflexes and muscles to help you either confront or escape threats.  Blood is pumped faster to the parts of the body that need it most, including the brain, making us more alert.

Those with the condition of anxiety deal with this far more often than the average person.  The problem is that it creates a positive feedback loop; fear about what is happening to you during an attack results in more adrenaline being released and your heart rate rising further.  This can rapidly build until the attack can seem unbearable, bringing on attack after attack.  If they occur frequently, they can cause serious disruption to your routine and quality of life.

Why does this happen so much for people diagnosed with cancer?

Aside from the obvious fears that come from diagnosis, anxiety can develop from other sources.  Cancer treatment often causes anxiety as it can involve intensive methods such as chemotherapy 

which people think may cause them pain.  Uncertainty plays a massive role too – when we have all the information, as is often the case when diagnosed with cancer, we often unwillingly or subconsciously fill that void with our fears.

How to manage anxiety

Dealing with anxiety depends on the person.  Talking to your doctor or nurse and finding out as much as you can will fill in as many of the gaps as possible.  With more information, you starve your anxiety of fuel.

  1. Counselling and talking therapies
     
  • Sharing your concerns and fears with others is a proven method of lessening stress and anxiety.  This can be done using two different methods:
    • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which tries to find the disruptive thinking patterns and behaviours and then lessen or eradicate them as far as possible
  • Interpersonal Therapy is a one-to-one session where you can voice your fears in a safe and confidential space with a professional counsellor
  1. Help from experts
  • Many people suffering with cancer-related anxiety feel that talking to an expert or friend is either a sign of weakness or an unnecessary burden for others.  Don’t believe this, there are many experts who deal with people every day who need/require emotional help and there is no reason that those affected by cancer – be it sufferers or their loved ones, should not seek help as well
  1. Self Help
  • There are many ways to help yourself.  Relaxation and meditation are great ways to take your mind off your worries and clear your head.  Gentle physical exercise is a proven way to relieve stress and keep yourself healthy both physically and mentally.  As is living a healthy lifestyle in general; although the odd glass of wine may relax you in the moment, the long-term effects will increase your stress and anxiety overall.  Cutting bad habits out of your life and focussing more on hobbies or interests is a much better way to distract yourself and keep your mind active
  1. During a panic attack
  • Panic attacks are sudden and leave little room for finding help.  If you find yourself in this situation, it is good to remember that panic attacks are always temporary and will pass.  Breathing slowly and deeply for 5 full seconds through your nose; then out, slowly and deeply, through your mouth for another 5 full seconds, can do wonders for controlling your heart rate and calming your body and mind.  The deeper breathing slows the heart rate back down, while the focus helps calm your mind which is the source of attacks.  Finally, try to avoid caffeine, stimulants, and alcohol, as these all leave your more vulnerable to attacks due to their stimulating (heart rate increasing) effects.

 

This is just a quick overview of some of the issues of anxiety.  If you are looking for more information,  want to read others  personal experiences, or would like to share your own  why not join our Facebook group and get involved with the community?