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Feeling anxious after being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness like breast cancer is very common. But some people find these feelings of anxiety overwhelming. Psychotherapist Nathalie Asmall has some practical tips to help.
Many people struggle with anxiety after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Some level of anxiety is completely normal under these circumstances, especially as you may have been through several treatments, which can be very stressful.
However, when you find that anxious thoughts are increasingly taking over, stopping you focusing on the rest of your life, or affecting your relationships with those closest to you, then it may be useful to take steps to help.
If this is happening to you, the first thing to do is to stop blaming yourself. Many people feel frustrated they can’t stop their anxious thoughts. Family and friends often make this worse by telling us to be positive, which makes us feel more of a failure for being anxious and worried.
Why do we become anxious?
It’s important to understand that your mind is doing exactly what it was designed to do: you have been through a traumatic and stressful experience, which tends to make your body constantly alert.
The body doesn’t know the difference between being attacked by a lion or having surgery. It just knows it’s been hurt, so it will tend to look out for further threats. This makes perfect sense when we’ve been attacked by a lion: we want to keep a constant look-out for any sign of the lion returning, so we can run away or fight it off. In a way, when your mind is continuing to spiral into anxious thoughts, it’s attempting to do the same thing.
Unfortunately, this isn’t helpful, because cancer is not a threat we can run away from. Also, our body cannot tell the difference between what we imagine and what is real, so when you continue to worry about the cancer coming back, needing further treatment, and so on, your body will produce the same kinds of stress hormones as if this were really happening.
These stress hormones, in turn, will cause your mind to be more anxious, and this results in a vicious cycle that can be difficult to break out of.
The secret to breaking out of this cycle is to try different strategies and find the ones that work for you.
Tips to help you cope with anxiety
We’re all different, and while some people love relaxation techniques which get them to visualise themselves lying on a beach, others cannot visualise at all, and get extremely tense when asked to do so. Here are a few simple things you can try.
- Deep breathing. Lie down or sit comfortably with both feet on the floor. Breathe in to the count of 7, out to the count of 11. Focus your attention on breathing deeply into your belly. Feel where the breath is going in your body and notice the sensation of breathing out again.
- Listen to a relaxation CD or a recording of natural sounds, such as birdsong or ocean waves.
- Do your favourite activity, for example, brisk walking, yoga or Tai Chi.
- Try a complementary therapy, such as massage, reflexology or reiki.
Make time to worry every day
If anxious thoughts have become a constant companion, you may need to use a more structured approach to find a better balance.
Try setting aside a ‘worry time’ every day. Ideally this should happen at the same time and preferably not just before going to bed. During your daily ‘worry time’, you will write down all the things you’re most anxious about.
When your worry time is up (this could be anything between 10 and 30 minutes, experiment with what feels right for you), put your notebook away, preferably in a drawer. As you close the drawer, say to yourself: ‘I’m finished with all my worries for today, but I will come back to this the same time tomorrow.’
Anytime you find yourself thinking anxious thoughts again, tell yourself: ‘This is not the right time for worries. I will come back to that during tomorrow’s worry time.’
Effectively you’re training your mind away from constant anxious thoughts. If you’re going to try this, make sure you stick to the ritual of daily worry time, otherwise it won’t work.
You’ll probably find that initially this feels like hard work, but over time it becomes much easier. This is because thoughts travel down neural pathways (connections between one part of the nervous system with another) that have become well worn. As you continue to redirect your thoughts, new neural pathways are created, and eventually these become the automatic responses, not the anxious ones.
Getting help if you need it
Generally, if you’re trying to distract yourself from anxious thoughts, it helps to have something else to focus on, like a holiday, a hobby or a cause close to your heart.
If these simple tips and techniques don’t work for you, ask for further help.
Your GP or breast care nurse will be aware of what’s available in your area, which can include counselling, relaxation and stress management courses, or training in mindfulness and meditation.
You can find more information about anxiety in the NHS Choices Moodzone.
Content created March 2013; next planned review 2015
People often say that having breast cancer is life-changing. What best describes your experience?