Taking Care of Your Mental Health
- Pro tennis player Nick Kyrgios, who has previously been open about his struggle with depression and substance abuse, credited sports star Andy Murray in a recent interview for helping him after raising concerns about self harm.
- The term mental health refers to both our emotional and psychological well-being. Our mental health can affect how we think, feel, and behave. Certain triggers like stress, traumatic events, or change in your physical health can affect mental health.
- It’s really important to keep tabs on your mental health and, if necessary, seek treatment. This doesn’t necessarily mean traditional therapy because while it may be really helpful (even life-changing) for some, that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone.
- Dr. Scott Irwin, a psychiatrist and Director of Supportive Care Services at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, tells SurvivorNet, “We all get depressed from time to time, have a sad day, feeling down and blue – that’s part of normal human emotion, part of normal life. Some of us, when we’re dealing with difficult things such as a diagnosis of cancer, may be sad or down or blue more often. And sometimes it gets to the point where that depression can be a little bit overwhelming, and we help them through therapy, through non-medication interventions.”
- There are many ways to address mental health issues. Options may include meditation, practicing mindfulness, talking with a therapist, joining a support group, and medication, such as antidepressants.
We’re glad to see Kyrgios, who obtained his career-high ATP singles ranking of world No. 13 in October 2016, being so willing to talk about his past as it’s inspirational to others dealing with mental health issues, cancer, or disease.
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Kyrgios, who spent some times in a London psychiatric warn in 2019 amid his mental health struggle, explained, “He saw it [the self-harm] and he said, ‘What’s that on your arm?’ It was pretty bad at that stage. Andy obviously was trying to give me advice on it.
“But I was just so stuck in my ways at that time that I didn’t listen. Obviously I’m very thankful. I thank him a lot.”
"He took me under his wing… I thank him a lot."
Nick Kyrgios tells Piers Morgan how Andy Murray helped him with mental health and self harm struggles.
— Piers Morgan Uncensored (@PiersUncensored) December 1, 2023
Kyrgios continued, “I think it was a year-and-a-half to two years of just complete harm. It was pretty dark to be honest. I hated myself, I hated waking up and being Nick Kyrgios.
Now, after Kyrgios was able to power through the tough times and reap success in 2022, both at the Austrialian Open and Wimbledon, the tennis star aspires to help others dealing with similar issues.
He told Piers Morgan, “I feel like I’ve helped so many people after I opened up about it and put it on social media.
“I’ve almost been a beacon for people who are struggling. When they feel like they’re overwhelmed and they’re going towards drinking, drugs and stuff, they open up and they feel like I’m relatable.”
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Kyrgios continued, “That’s been the most powerful thing in my career; people coming to me with genuine issues. They send me photos in my Instagram, direct messages, self-harming and genuinely wanting to commit suicide.
“I have conversations with these people. Sometimes I’ve had phone calls with these people. That’s making a real difference and I’m just really proud.”
Mental Health: Critical Knowledge
The term mental health refers to both our emotional and psychological well-being. Our mental health can affect how we think, feel, and behave. Certain triggers like stress, traumatic events, or changes in your physical health can affect mental health. It’s really important to keep tabs on your mental health and, if necessary, seek treatment. This doesn’t necessarily mean traditional therapy because while it may be really helpful (even life-changing) for some, that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone.
Problems with mood and overall mental well-being can be attributed to several factors. For some people, it’s genetic, while others may be experiencing a response to some sort of stressor or past trauma.
In order to keep your mental health in check, it’s important to be aware of signs that can be subtle that there is something affecting your mind. These signs include:
- A change in eating or sleeping habits
- Losing interest in people or usual activities
- Experiencing little or no energy
- Numb and/or hopeless feelings
- Turning to drinking or drugs more than usual
- Non-typical angry, upset, or on-edge feelings
- Yelling/fighting with loved ones
- Experiencing mood swings
- Intrusive thoughts
- Trouble getting through daily tasks
These symptoms can be wide-ranging and vary greatly from person to person. Everyone experiences grief differently, for example. However, if you are feeling unusually sad, on edge, or like you’re no longer interested in activities you used to love, know that there are many treatment options available and many different healthy ways to help you cope.
Coping With Depression
Dr. Scott Irwin, a psychiatrist and Director of Supportive Care Services at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, says it’s crucial for patients to talk to their care team about their mental health.
“We all get depressed from time to time, have a sad day, feeling down and blue – that’s part of normal human emotion, part of normal life,” Dr. Irwin explained.
“Some of us, when we’re dealing with difficult things such as a diagnosis of cancer, may be sad or down or blue more often. And sometimes it gets to the point where that depression can be a little bit overwhelming, and we help them through therapy, through non-medication interventions.”
There are many ways to address mental health issues as a cancer survivor. Options may include:
- Practicing mindfulness
- Talking with a therapist
- Joining a support group
- Medication, such as antidepressants
When doctors and patients together decide that medication is necessary, it’s important that doctors choose wisely.
“I often try to choose medications with the lowest side effect profile,” Dr. Irwin said. “If patients are getting hormonal therapy, there are particular antidepressants that we can’t use because they may lower the effectiveness of that hormonal therapy, and so we choose antidepressants that don’t impact the cancer care.”
This shows how important it is to communicate with everyone you’re seeing so they can be on the same page about your treatment and options.
Another way doctors can tailor mental health medications for their patients is through genetic testing.
“Doing the genetic testing has absolutely transformed the landscape of psycho-pharmacology,” Dr. Plutchik told SurvivorNet. “It’s something that I highly recommend for anybody who is taking medication, whether they are being treated for cancer or not.”
Dr. Plutchik also explained that genetic testing can be specifically helpful for cancer patients because it may help avoid trial and error when it comes to choosing a mental health medication that does not interfere with their cancer treatment.
“So, a person who is dealing with this and may have to go on chemotherapy has already enough on their plate that they don’t really want to start dealing with trial and error with medications,” she said. “So, it gives me information about which medications are likely to work without having problematic side effects, and it also gives information about interactions between any of the psych medications that we choose and the chemotherapy agents that they may be taking.”
Whether you’re coping with an illness, an emotional problem, or a life transition, a support group can be a place where people in the same boat or in a similar situation can come together.
But maybe you’re a little unsure or skeptical about joining a group. What will it be like? Are you expected to share your story?
Dr. Amy McNally, gynecologic oncologist with Minnesota Oncology, tries to reassure her patients that chances are they’ll derive some benefit.
“I think in a support group, you’re going to find women who are in similar situations but yet can share their unique stories,” she says. “Just being there is worth it. You don’t have to share a thing. You can just sit and listen, or you can be part of the conversation and offer your thoughts. And it can be different every time you go; it’s your choice as to how or whether to participate and what you decide to get out of the group.”
McNally thinks it can be helpful and comforting to be around people who know what you’ve been through or are going through, and that in and of itself is reason enough to try it out.
“People that are struggling with coping with the experience, coping with body image should reach out to their doctors, find a therapist in the community,” says Dr. Irwin.
A patient navigator or social worker can also help connect you with a mental health professional that you can talk to to help process your emotions.
“It’s about meeting the individual patient where they are and their feelings, how they’ve always dealt with their body image, what the body image changes mean now in their lives and their relationships, and how they can move forward given the new reality,” Dr. Irwin said.
Jon Kabat Zinn, founder of the eight-week stress-reduction program Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a course that has entered the mainstream of health care, scientific study, and public policy, describes mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
Mindfulness is often suggested for cancer patients to reduce high levels of anxiety and distress associated with diagnosis, treatment, and anticipation of possible disease recurrence.
Both the American Society of Clinical Oncology and the Society of Integrative Oncology recommend meditation as part of a multidisciplinary approach to reduce stress, depression, and mood disturbance and to improve the quality of life in cancer patients. But the question remains: does it really work? We think it does.
Five tips for practicing mindfulness:
- Choose one daily activity to practice mindfully (e.g., eating your lunch, brushing your teeth, or taking a shower). During this activity, notice your breath and the activity of your mind for a few moments.
- Take a pause throughout your day. During your day, find a moment to stop and take five deep breaths with your eyes closed.
- Kindly acknowledge a moment you’re experiencing a difficulty by putting your hand on your heart and saying, “Feel my pain. How can I be kind to myself in this moment?”
- Get curious about your emotions. Experiment with welcoming your emotions as they come instead of pushing them away.
- Become aware when you’re in a rush. Ask yourself, “Do I really need to hurry?”
Regularly meditating allows people to start to become more aware of the emotions in the physical body and the thoughts running through the mind, to acknowledge their thoughts as they arise, and then gently let them go.
Shannon Masur, a colon cancer and Lynch Syndrome survivor, describes this as “when a thought comes in, to feel it, feel the fear, but let it go after a few seconds.”
All of this is said to result in an overall reduction in stress and anxiety in the body. It may also help patients control problems such as pain, difficulty sleeping, tiredness, feeling sick, and high blood pressure.
For help getting started with meditation, here’s a guided session to try.
Overall, don’t forget to prioritize your mental health if you’re facing cancer. You might feel like your mind is the least of your worries while fighting the disease, but it’s important to know just how big of an impact your mental well-being can have on your health as a whole.
“Actually, there’s data that if you have extra stress or depression, you may not recover, or you have a higher risk or recurrence,” Dr. Irwin said. “So… in treating the depression, we’re actually impacting the cancer care outcomes.”
Power of Support
We love how Nick Kyrgios had support from fellow tennis pro Andy Murray. In fact, one way SurvivorNet experts encourage cancer patients or anyone dealing with other health or mental health issues is to alleviate some of that stress by leaning on their support system.
A support system can be made up of loved ones like family and friends. It can also be comprised of strangers who have come together because of a shared cancer experience. Mental health professionals can also be critical parts of a support system.
WATCH: Sharing Details About Your Diagnosis
“Some people don’t need to go outside of their family and friend’s circle. They feel like they have enough support there,” psychiatrist Dr. Lori Plutchik told SurvivorNet. “But for people who feel like they need a little bit more, it’s important to reach out to a mental health professional.”
Dr. Plutchik also stressed it is important for people supporting cancer warriors to understand their emotions can vary day-to-day.
“People can have a range of emotions, 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,” Dr. Plutchik said.
Contributing: SurvivorNet Staff