How You Can Deal With Stress, Anxiety, and Uncertainty

Lidia Schapira, MD, FASCO; 2015-2021 Cancer.Net Editor in Chief
December 15, 2016
Lidia Schapira, MD, FASCO

Living with uncertainty is something that people with cancer and their families do all the time. They quickly learn that there are good and bad days and that they can’t fix everything and shouldn’t pretend they can. In the blink of an eye, they need to re-imagine the future and learn to deal with new situations that challenge their resources and imagination. They learn to organize and strategize and to find ways of asking for support. They learn to manage stress so that it does not disrupt normal routines, routines that they learn to value after they experience the unexpected disruptions that illness causes.

That said, it’s easy to get stuck in negatives and harder to get unstuck. And it is precisely at these moments when we need to pause and find ways of restoring a sense of order and staying calm. It may seem impossible if you are experiencing anxiety and have difficulty sleeping, but this is when we need to find a way to stay the course, perhaps by focusing on a point in the horizon that represents our “rock.”

A patient once told me that during the long hours of the night, when she was awake and struggling with nausea from her chemotherapy, she could only focus on getting from one moment to the next by feeling compassion towards herself. I think this is so fundamentally wise and have practiced myself and recommended it to others struggling with a problem or a difficult situation. By activating compassionate thoughts, we can also begin to harness the power of our own minds and move past the immediate stress and challenge that occupies our minds. share on twitter

People living with cancer or chronic illness know there are things they can’t change, such as the doctor’s schedule or the traffic in the area, even with the best planning. But they, and all of us, can change our mindset. Mindsets play a dramatic role in healing.  Research is convincingly showing that it can affect immune and hormonal pathways and thereby affect health outcomes. If we can re-orient ourselves and get past our aversions and fears, we can find ways of getting unstuck and then solve our problems.

By changing our mindset, we can accomplish so much! We can move past the fear or anxiety of the moment and begin to strategize and even find ways to anticipate and manage stress. Air or car travel can be stressful, having a scan or blood test triggers anxiety, as does waiting for the result. Anticipating these negative feelings and having a plan to cope with those feelings in place can help. Asking a friend to visit or taking a walk by yourself may relieve some tension. Taking relaxing deep breaths may relieve muscle tension. For others, a hot bath before going to bed can do the same.

I am a believer in harnessing the power of the mind to help us live better. I recently learned researchers found that changing one’s mindset about aging, by thinking about aging as a process of gaining wisdom, may even make us live longer!

Stress seems inevitable, but we can adjust our response to it and see it as a challenge. If we can create and implement a plan for how to deal with stress, we immediately feel better. Facing problems and focusing on things we can control is a good way to start.


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