Anxiety

People living with cancer feel many different emotions, including anxiety. You may have feelings of anxiety while waiting for the results of tests, being treated for illness, or worrying that cancer will recur after treatment (come back).

Nearly one-third of people with cancer experience serious emotional challenges, like anxiety.

Anxiety may affect your ability to cope with a cancer diagnosis or treatment. It may cause you to miss check-ups or delay treatment. Anxiety may make it difficult to sleep. Even mild anxiety can affect the quality of life for you and your caregivers.

Know the Signs

Talk to your doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Uncontrolled fear or worryv
  • Constant thoughts about bad things that might happen
  • Trouble sleeping due to worry
  • High tension and stress
  • Trouble breathing or a racing heart (these might be symptoms of a panic attack)

Take a Quiz: What’s Your Stress Level?

Take this quiz to find out how much stress you have been dealing with lately.

Talk to Your Health Care Team

  • Your medical team cares about your emotional health, as well as your physical health. Tell them how you are feeling emotionally.
  • You may want to add members to your team who are experts in emotional health.
  • Ask your doctor to refer a psychologist if you have a lot of anxiety.

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is slowing down to pay attention to what’s going on right here, right now. Practicing mindfulness involves breathing methods, guided imagery, and other practices to relax the body and mind and help reduce stress and anxiety.

Practice Self-Reflection

When you’re feeling anxious, pause for a moment to think about the situation.

  1. Stop and take a deep breath.
  2. Ask yourself, what’s really going on here?
  3. Remind yourself that your thoughts are “just thoughts.” Thoughts come and go. We all have thoughts, but having a thought doesn’t mean that it’s true or that it will last forever.
  4. Take another deep breath and move on with your day.
  5. Do something nice for yourself. Go for a walk, take a bath, paint your nails, call a friend, go to a movie, or play with a child or a pet. Do whatever feels good to you.

Take Time for Mindful Moments

  1. Take some time to do something that you enjoy, like a hobby.
  2. Set aside time (even 1 minute!) to slow down and breathe.
  3. Find a quiet spot where you can be by yourself for a few minutes.
  4. Sit down, take a deep breath, and close your eyes. Notice your breath.
  5. At some point (usually pretty quickly), other thoughts will pop up in your mind. That’s ok! Just bring your attention back to your breath.
  6. Focus on your breathing, right here, right now.

 

Practice Relaxation Techniques

We can’t control everything in life. But we can control how we react to life’s stresses. To help you cope with your anxiety, set aside about 5 to 10 minutes a day to practice one or more of these relaxation exercises.

Connect with Your Body’s Relaxation Response

  1. Lie comfortably on your back or find a comfortable and quiet place to sit.
  2. Close your eyes and breathe gently and naturally through your nose.
  3. Relax all your muscles, starting at your toes and moving up to the top of your head.
  4. Focus on your breathing.
  5. Continue for 5 to 20 minutes.
  6. When you are done, sit quietly for several minutes, at first with your eyes closed and then with your eyes open. Wait a few minutes before standing up.

Practice Deep Breathing

  1. Find a comfortable and quiet place to sit or lie down.
  2. Relax your face, jaw, neck, and shoulders. Gently place one hand on your chest and the other hand on your belly button.
  3. As you breathe in, allow the breath to expand your belly, chest, and lungs. As you breathe out, gently press your hands against your chest and belly to let out more air.
  4. Focus on steady breathing.
  5. Take your time.

Try Progressive Muscle Relaxation

  1. Plan to take about 15 minutes to do the exercise.
  2. Find a quiet place where no one will disturb you.
  3. First, apply muscle tension to a specific part of the body. Take a slow, deep breath and squeeze the muscles as hard as you can for about 5 seconds.
  4. After about 5 seconds, quickly relax the tensed muscles. Exhale as you let all the tightness flow out of the tensed muscles. The muscles should feel loose as you relax them. It’s very important for you to notice and focus on the difference between the tension and relaxation.
  5. Stay relaxed for about 15 seconds, and then do the same thing for the next muscle group. Once you’ve gone through all of the muscle groups, take a moment to enjoy the relaxation.

Panic Attacks

Sometimes you might feel like your anxiety is spiraling out of control. It can get so intense that your body starts to show your anxiety through symptoms of a panic attack. These attacks can last several minutes.

Know the Signs

Symptoms of a panic attack may include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • A racing or pounding heartbeat
  • Dizziness and lightheadedness
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Choking feeling
  • Feeling unreal or detached from your surroundings
  • Sweating
  • Nausea or upset stomach
  • Recovering completely within a few minutes, with no more symptoms
  • Recognizing the exact same symptoms you’ve gone through during an attack in the past

Manage Panic Attacks

Working with your doctor or therapist to help treat your anxiety could also help you avoid future panic attacks.

If You’re Having a Panic Attack

  • Sit or lie down in a quiet place, if possible.
  • Take long, deep breaths. Count to 4 on every inhale and exhale.
  • Remind yourself that the feeling of panic will pass.
  • Visit Mindfulness and Relaxation to learn more skills that can help you during panic attacks.

Tips for Caregivers

  • If you are prone to panic attacks, talk to your caregivers and loved ones about how they can help if you have one. They can help by:
    • Checking with the doctor to be sure that the symptoms are caused by panic and not another medical problem.
    • Staying calm and speaking softly during a panic attack.
    • Sitting with you until you feel better.
    • Calling for help if needed.
    • Providing transportation to treatment if needed.
  • Learn more about what your caregivers can do.
  • Here are some things caregivers should not do if you’re having a panic attack:
    • Minimize or make light of your terror or fear.
    • Judge you for feeling scared and acting strangely.
    • Try to talk you out of your fear or other feelings.
    • Hesitate to call the doctor if they have questions about what’s happening.

Learn More About Anxiety

The National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society have additional resources to help you, including anxiety, fear, and cancer, and adjustment to cancer: anxiety and distress.