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Dealing With Stress and Anxiety

A guide to your emotions (you're not alone), and some ways you can redirect your mind for more control.


A Brief Guide for Managing Your Emotions

dealing with stress anxiety

Let's get right to it: Being diagnosed with breast cancer instantly sets off an emotional crisis for most of us. And when we experience a crisis, we instinctively shift to survival mode. Our thoughts, behaviours and emotions all reflect our drive to live beyond the attacking threat. We become hyper-focused on not letting the cancer win. Our bodies produce more adrenaline to help us keep up with the extra demands on our emotions. 

Some of us use the adrenaline to try to fight the life-threatening situation and others try to flee by running from it. Both approaches take a great deal of energy, regardless of whether you are trying to battle it or repressing the panic by keeping your head in the sand. 

Unfortunately, the longer we stay in survival mode, the more likely we are to stress our immune systems, which weakens the body's natural defences and leads to physical depletion. In other words, it wears us out and we become fatigued. Surgery, radiation treatments, and chemotherapy all cause fatigue, so it behooves us to try to manage our emotions in a way that doesn’t add to the physical drain.

Worry: Wondering About Your Future with Breast Cancer

Simply put, fear is the basis of worry. Fear in the moment can be a life-saving warning signal that you are in imminent danger, such as your response to a fire in your home. Your initial fear response to learning that you have cancer is helpful because it makes you take it seriously and take immediate action to try to get rid of it; however, fear becomes a problem when we bring it into the future in the form of worry. Thinking about the future and making a plan of action for your goals is good problem-solving. Thinking about all the possible ways that things can go wrong is counter-productive worry.

You should never be too hard on yourself for your tendency to have fear-based, negative thoughts. It is how we, as human beings, are wired. Our most important function is to survive, so fear is very instinctive. We don’t need to be happy to survive, but we do use fear to keep us focused on surviving. The problem is that we can get into a bad pattern of thinking and acting like survival is always the situation at hand, when, in fact, it is the exception, even with breast cancer. So, what can you do?

Minimise Your Vulnerability and Loss of Control

Fear-based worry is most likely to occur when we are most vulnerable and have the least amount of control over a situation. Knowing this suggests that we can keep our level of fear/worry to a minimum by finding ways to take control over the situation. As is often said, “Knowledge is power.” The more you learn the facts about your type of breast cancer, the stage of your disease, treatment options and outcomes, and how much flexibility there is in how and when you receive your treatment, the more you will find ways to take back control of your life. 

It is empowering to know we have asserted ourselves in at least a small detail of our treatment plan. Too often, women in our culture, especially middle-aged and senior women, still have a difficult time identifying their needs and asking for help. Something as small as requesting a quieter chemotherapy room, or even a blanket, can make a big difference in our comfort level and sense of control. This is a prime opportunity to decide you have intrinsic worth as a person, instead of playing out the old script of unworthiness. The medical staff is getting paid to help you. If you weren’t their patient, they wouldn’t have a job, so validate their professionalism by making your needs known. It is a lot better than worrying if the room is going to be too cold at your next chemo treatment and if you will be able to endure it.

Besides what happens with your medical providers, there are many other areas where you can refocus on the present to give you more control during your cancer journey. Attending to the details by

  • getting organized with lists
  • maintaining a doctor appointment calendar
  • planning a weekly supper menu and pre-cooked meals for the freezer

...can make such a difference in creating a sense of control. 

Anxiety and Depression: Stabilizing Your Mood

It is not uncommon for cancer patients to feel moody. You may not have a full blown depression, but find yourself irritable and short tempered. If your doctor has made an assessment of your level of depression and has determined that you are experiencing a major depressive episode (biochemically based depression), it may need to be treated with an antidepressant. Individual therapy and support groups are excellent ways of helping you cope, but treating a chemical imbalance with talk therapy alone is like treating strep throat with talking when an antibiotic is needed; it can actually make you feel worse. Don't be afraid to get all the help you need.

woman exercisingIf you are just moody, exercise and diet can help your body make more mood neurotransmitters to prevent a full-blown depression. Exercise can be helpful for your overall sense of well being even if you are battling fatigue, but you will need to listen to your body and rest in addition to the exercise. Don’t overdo it, just try to get your heart and lungs moving to stimulate a healthy metabolic response and reduce your muscular tension and pain.

Try to go for healthier food choices such as fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meat, nuts, whole grains and fewer processed foods. Carbohydrates like sugar and refined white flour will reduce your energy, but healthier carbohydrates like fresh veg will be calming. Protein like lean meat will energize you and improve your concentration, but salty processed meats can cause fluid retention and lead to muscle cramps. If you are trying to eliminate sugar, you need to know that during the first two weeks you may experience an increase in carb cravings, but then your cravings will go away. If you want to really get gung-ho about changing your diet, check with Cancer Research UK for their cancer-preventing dietary suggestions.

Stay in the Present

This is the time to work hard at staying in the present. We are not our mind, we have minds to use to our liking. Obsessing or worrying is a choice and so is not obsessing or worrying. You get to decide what you want to think about. It won’t work to merely tell yourself not to think about something — the idea will keep popping into your head. To shift your thinking, you have to consciously replace one thought with another. You can decide to use your mind for something useful, like planning the week’s menu or your next holiday. Decide to use your mind to read an entertaining book or recall a fun memory you have of being with someone special. There are endless positive things we can decide to think about.

Control takes practice, and it is easy to feel fearful and powerless if we don’t remember to stay in the present and manage what is right in front of us. Letting go of worries and redirecting our minds to what we can control is the best we can do, and makes a real difference in our perspective and our healing.