Knowing You're Not Alone in Your Anxiety
- Filmmaker and breast cancer survivor Laura Morton wants you to know you’re not alone in your anxiety.
- In her new documentary “Anxious Nation” investigates the prevalence of anxiety and mental health challenges in families across the country.
- But she wants you to know that “there are things you can do that can treat your mental health while you’re treating your cancer.”
- Anxiety is triggered by many stressors, such as a diagnosis or the fear that your cancer will return. It can even be triggered by the financial stress of your treatment.
- Our experts have tips for coping with anxiety, such as finding hobbies that bring you joy or managing your extreme thoughts in a rational way.
Morton is strong, to say the least — she survived breast cancer. But it was when she came out on the other side that she was faced with this whole new battle in her life and her home: anxiety.Read More
The isolation caused her to do something impulsive.
She put out a post on social media, asking simply, “Anxiety. Who’s dealing with it?”
The flood of responses was tremendous. Morton was surprised to see that people she knew were talking openly about their struggles in a public forum.
And then something even more incredible happened: people began sending personal notes about their experiences directly to Morton.
“They rocked my world,” she said.
The sheer volume and intensity of responses indicated, at least anecdotally, that more and more people deal with anxiety than we realize.
It reminded Morton of the days when she grappled with being a breast cancer patient. It was “a club I didn’t want to be a part of,” she says, leaving her with intense emotions she had to learn to cope with.
Knowing just how many people and their families are quietly fighting an anxious battle, Morton felt compelled to shine a light on it and help them cope.
She decided to investigate the theme of anxiety: “If you’re going through a cancer diagnosis right now, there’s no question that you’re feeling some level of anxiety.”
Furthermore, she wondered, “What can we do about it?”
“Anxious Nation,” which premieres on May 3 in a live stream online, delves deep into the topic of how mental and physical health collide: “Just as you have to navigate your cancer journey, you have to navigate your mental health journey,” explains Morton.
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Experiencing a Range of Emotions During Cancer
As Morton showed, she’s not the only person who has experienced anxiety — and she’s definitely not the only cancer survivor.
Anxiety is something survivors are intimately familiar with.
“People have a range of emotions when they’re diagnosed with cancer,” Dr. Lori Plutchik, a psychiatrist, previously told SurvivorNet.
“And they can include fear, anger … and these emotions tend to be fluid. They can recede and return based on where someone is in the process. Going through a cancer diagnosis is just the beginning of a complicated, complicated process.”
And when it comes to anxiety, it’s “the worry about a future event and also the underestimation of our ability to cope,” clinical psychologist Dr. Marianna Strongin told SurvivorNet.
A person doesn’t know what will happen in the future (like with their health, family or money), and furthermore, they’re not sure they can handle that unknown.
WATCH: How to Manage Anxiety in High-Stress Times
People can experience physical and psychological symptoms when they have anxiety, and they can interfere with daily life. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, symptoms of a generalized anxiety disorder, for example, can include:
- Feeling restless on-edge
- Becoming easily fatigued
- Difficulty concentrating
- Muscle aches, stomachaches, or other pains
- Feelings of worry that you can’t seem to control
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
There are many other types of anxiety disorders, and other symptoms can also include:
- Racing or pounding heart
- Chest pain
- Tingling in your body
- Difficulty making eye contact
According to Dr. Strongin, not only do cancer patients experience anxiety during treatments, but “45% of cancer survivors experience anxiety even after they’ve survived.”
This is not surprising, because, as she explains, “their body has gotten used to having a lot of questions about the outcome of their treatments or of their health.”
She recommends music, movement, and meditation as ways to calm the body.
And it’s so important for survivors to know that there are coping mechanisms that can help them as they encounter various triggers through their cancer journey.
One of the most triggering aspects of surviving cancer is the fear that your cancer will return. People refer to this as “scan-xiety,” or the worry about your upcoming body scans and tests.
Bruce Feiler, author of “Scanxiety,” explains why an upcoming scan causes such trepidation.
“We first learn we have cancer from scans, then learn from them if that cancer has shrunk or disappeared, then learn if it has come back,” he said.
“Scans are like revolving doors, emotional roulette wheels that spin us around for a few days and spit us out the other side. Land on red, we’re in for another trip to Cancerland; land on black, we have a few more months of freedom.”
“Scan anxiety is unbelievably stressful,” Dr. Samantha Boardman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine, told SurvivorNet.
She advocates the development of a “flow” mindset to combat scan anxiety.
“How can we experience flow in our daily lives?” Dr. Boardman says. “It’s usually in some form of a hobby — something we just do because we love doing it.”
Any activity – exercise, cooking, art, writing – can help a person become immersed in something joyful, which provides an escape from stress.
Cancer and chronic disease patients and survivors also frequently battle financial stress. It’s not a secret that health care is expensive, and many people find themselves facing huge medical bills to pay for their treatment.
Many patients report feeling overwhelmed by not only a health crisis but a potential financial one as well.
Dr. Strongin advises people to examine their relationship with money.
Often, we fall into a black-and-white perspective on money, and our thoughts may become extreme: in other words, she explains, we may think we are either financially stable or we are going to be bankrupt, and it is that binary thinking that leads to anxiety.
She suggests that people instead form what she labels “grey thoughts,” such as, “Just because I am taking a loan or using some of my saved money, does not mean that I will run out of money.” Or, “If money is for security then using it on my health is exactly what it’s for.”
In addition, Dr. Strongin explains the three states of mind we experience, as defined by Dialectical Behavioral Therapy.
- Emotional Mind: Dr. Strongin explains that this is “characterized by our strong emotions such as fear, anger, sadness, etc.”
- Reasonable Mind: This “draws on logic, reason, statistics and history.”
- Wise Mind: This mind is, ideally, “the state we would like to optimally make a decision in.”
Sometimes, when we are experiencing stress, we might make decisions from our emotional mind. What we should try to do is negotiate between our emotional and reasonable minds, in order, she says, “to make a wise decision.”
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