A diagnosis of lung cancer is a life-altering event. It may leave you feeling overwhelmed, scared, stressed, or anxious.
Stress and anxiety can occur throughout the journey. It’s normal to feel anxious about tests, treatments, and wondering what’s next.
Even after the lung cancer has been treated, there can be lingering anxiety.
Our brain has a complex security system to let us know when something needs our attention. Any major life event, especially those that feel like a threat, can activate this system.
In some cases, this stress or anxiety response is useful. It helps us react quickly if we need to run away from a dangerous situation. It can create obsessive focus, which helps when you’re prepping for a big meeting.
In these cases, the danger goes away and the alarm is turned off.
But when the source of stress or anxiety continues, the alarm system doesn’t have a chance to shut off. This long-term stress and anxiety can cause physical and emotional issues.
Physical symptoms can include pain, digestive changes, and heart palpitations. Mood changes, irritability, trouble sleeping, and generally feeling on edge are also common.
If this is happening to you, you’re certainly not alone. The tips below can help you cope.
Feeling anxious can feel like intense fear, worry, or impending doom. Anxiety happens when your brain is stuck on high alert. It can be exhausting feeling like you’re always ready for attack.
Anxiety can affect your mood, sleep, relationships, and overall sense of wellness. Here are some other things associated with anxiety.
A panic attack is a sudden and overwhelming onset of fear, anxiety, or doom. A state of very high anxiety can cause it. Symptoms can include:
- feeling detached
- fear of dying
- chest pain
Some people who have panic attacks think they’re having a heart attack, as symptoms can be similar. They may also worry about when and where the next panic attack might occur.
Stress is the body’s response to change. The stress response is a survival instinct to let us know that something is wrong. Stress triggers the “fight or flight” response.
We can’t always run away or fight off things that are stressing us out, though. Chronic (ongoing) stress, like that associated with a cancer diagnosis, doesn’t just go away. This can cause many physical and emotional changes.
Some people notice digestive changes, such as heartburn, upset stomach, and diarrhea. Other physical symptoms can include a racing heart, headaches, tension, and jaw clenching.
Anxiety can look different for different people. If there are specific patterns or triggers for your anxiety, it could be an anxiety disorder.
There are many types of anxiety disorders. These include panic disorder, agoraphobia, and generalized anxiety disorder.
A diagnosis can be helpful in some cases. It may guide treatment decisions.
Remember that you don’t need an official diagnosis for your anxiety to be real and worthy of treatment.
It may be helpful to talk it out with someone you trust. Reach out to a friend or family member and tell them how you’re feeling. Some people also find support groups or counseling services beneficial.
Do your best to get enough sleep (or at least rest), and eat on a regular schedule. Skipping meals or not getting enough rest can affect how well your brain functions.
Being active can also be an effective way to manage stress and anxiety.
Here are some other things you can try.
Deep breathing is a simple but powerful tool to manage anxiety. Practicing deep breathing can be helpful if breathing is difficult at times.
Deep breathing also strengthens your diaphragm, which helps control your breathing. As your diaphragm gets stronger, you’ll be able to bring more oxygen into your body, using less energy.
Try these steps to practice diaphragmatic breathing:
- Find a comfortable position, either sitting or lying down on your back.
- Place one hand on your belly and the other on your upper chest.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose.
- As you breathe in, you’ll notice your belly rising as it fills with air.
- Breathe out slowly through pursed lips, noticing how your belly falls as you breathe out.
- Continue breathing in this way until you feel more calm.
Mindfulness is about focusing on the present moment. It involves using your senses to explore the things that are happening around you right now.
Mindfulness is also noticing your thoughts and feelings without judgement. With practice, mindfulness helps keep you in the present moment. Staying in the moment can prevent worry and anxiety about the future.
Here are some ways to start practicing mindfulness now:
- When doing deep breathing exercises, be sure to focus on your breath.
- Take a moment to notice what sounds you can hear right now.
- Focus on the colors of the objects around you.
- Pay attention to how things feel when you touch them, such as clothing, surfaces, and objects around you.
- Notice how the sun or wind feels on your skin when you’re outside.
These everyday experiences can start to feel ordinary, and we stop noticing them. Part of becoming more mindful is about really tuning in to what’s happening around you. This helps your mind stay present.
Mindfulness can prevent thinking about what has already happened or what may happen in the future. It’s a powerful thing to just give a single moment your full attention.
Meditation is a method of achieving focus and mindfulness. It’s often seen as a more “formal” type of mindfulness.
There are different ways to meditate. Typically, it’s done in a quiet space where you can focus on your breath or a mantra. A mantra is a word or phrase that holds a special meaning for you. It gives your brain something to focus on.
It may be helpful to get some practice with mindfulness before trying out meditation.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to meditate to be mindful. Meditation is simply one mindfulness strategy.
You can try meditation by:
- sitting quietly and focusing on your breath
- listening to a guided meditation soundtrack
- holding a mantra in your mind to focus on
There are a variety of tools available if you feel like you need more support. You may have a mental health counselor as part of your cancer care team. If not, there may be someone your doctor can recommend.
This mental health counselor is someone who can support you in better coping with stress and anxiety related to lung cancer.
Support groups may also be an option. There can be power in connecting with people who are on a similar journey.
Any major life change, both the good and the bad, can bring on stress and anxiety. These feelings are normal at times, but they can also harm your health if they’re not managed well.
You’ve already sought support and treatment for your lung cancer. Don’t hesitate to do the same for your mental health.