Anxiety and cancer are pretty much joined at the hip. If you’re not concerned about treatment, you’re worried about the kids or the bills. And the “scanxiety” of waiting for test results always hovers nearby. Here’s how to cope.
When things get overwhelming, remember that you are always a few deep breaths away from feeling a little bit better. Focused deep breathing helps calm the nervous system quickly, before panic sets in. One proven technique is 4-7-8 Breathing, created by Andrew Weil M.D., founder of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona.
How to do it:
- Sit or lie down comfortably
- Place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest.
- Count to four as you take a deep, slow breath into your chest and belly.
- Hold your breath for seven counts.
- Breathe out for eight counts. Aim to push all the air out of your lungs by the time you count to eight. Relax.
- Repeat three or more times, or until you feel calm.
2. Stand your ground
Grounding exercises are a useful way to blunt anxiety. When you feel that floaty overwhelmed feeling, stomp your feet and feel yourself firmly on the ground. To calm a racing mind, try taking mental notes of your surroundings. Tell yourself:
- 5 things you see
- 4 things you feel
- 3 things you hear
- 2 things you smell
- 1 thing you taste
As you do this, continue to feel your own presence, and keep breathing.
3. Schedule your stress
If you are anxious about a test result, note when it is due and schedule some time beforehand to allow yourself to worry. During dedicated worry time, you can – in fact, should- freak out all you want. Give in to your worst fears, but when worry time is up, you’re done until the next scheduled session.
4. Get yourself in nature
Go for a walk in a city park, swim in a lake or an ocean, birdwatch, stare up at the stars, putter in the garden, wander in a forest. Whatever form of nature is available to you, getting outside in fresh air and around trees, blue water, and green things is calming. The growing field of ecopsychology is presenting new evidence that time spent in nature directly benefits mood, mental health, and emotional well-being.
5. Ice it out
Your vagus nerve, which runs from the base of your brain to your stomach, is one of the body’s longest nerves. When you stimulate this nerve, you can instantly calm the whole system. Place an ice pack on your sternum, right over your chest, or try tracing an ice cube along your left collarbone.
If you want to take it further, try plunging your head. Fill a large bowl or sink with ice cubes and water. Take a deep breath. Submerge your face (especially your eyes, forehead, temples, nose, and cheeks) for fifteen seconds. Come up, take a deep breath, and submerge again; repeat as needed until your nervous system has calmed. This technique stimulates the “dive reflex,” which happens when the body must conserve energy to survive. Anxiety dissipates as the body’s energy centers shift.
6. Shake it off
Intense anxiety can flood your system with adrenaline and other fight-or-flight hormones; shaking your body can help evict these unwelcome guests. The process, also known as therapeutic or neurogenic tremoring, encourages shaking the body all over to release muscular tension, burn excess adrenaline, and return the nervous system to its calm state.
If you’re not feeling the doggie shake, any type of movement can calm anxiety. Put on your favorite song and dance around the kitchen, or go for a quick jog (if that’s your thing). Whatever you do, moving your body helps burn off some of the negative energy anxiety brings.
7. Write it down
Journaling has proven health benefits. Getting your feelings out and onto the page can relieve stress and help you see things realistically. Here’s a simple exercise: make a list of all the things you are worried about, then go through the list and ask yourself if each item is fact or opinion. So for example, that you are worried about test results is a fact; that the results will be bad is an opinion, not a fact.
You can always feel free to just fill up a notebook with “Cancer Sucks” a thousand times too. Whatever works.