Negotiating the Anxiety Tunnel

Having recently experienced the anxiety that comes with discovering a lump, waiting for a doctor’s appointment with a long weekend in between and then waiting for tests and results I’m now reflecting on what I call ‘the anxiety tunnel’.

Anyone whose ever faced a cancer diagnosis will be familiar with the tunnel. We travel through it when we’re first diagnosed and don’t know what that diagnosis will mean. We head back into it when we’re waiting for the results of biopsies, or pathology after surgery. Sadly, some people find themselves feeling like the tunnel is their new permanent residence, as anxiety about recurrence becomes a regular shadow over their lives.

I had a message recently from a regular reader of this blog. She wanted to know how I deal with the anxiety. She tells me that her distress in similar situations is so overwhelming that she’s desperate for any advice that might help. So here are my top ten tips for negotiating the anxiety tunnel:

1. Treat It Like The Flu
You know how when you have the flu you just expect to not be your best? I find it helps to have the same attitude to anxiety. I think of it as ‘anxiety flu’. I accept that until I get my results or reach the end point of my uncertainty, I’m just not going to feel my best. This is normal. I am not ‘going crazy’. Adjust your expectations of yourself for the next few days. You’re not going to be firing on all cylinders. What can you delegate? What can you postpone? What can you ignore? Like any bout of illness it’s also worth paying attention to what you put in your body. It’s okay to eat less if you’re not hungry. Drink plenty of water so you don’t dehydrate and try to make sure that what you do eat is nourishing.

2. Breathe
One of the first physical changes that most of us experience with anxiety is a tendency to hold our breath or to breathe quickly and into the top of our lungs. Sit quietly. Put one hand on your heart and one on your belly. Breathe deeply and slowly into your belly and feel it expand. Try to make your exhale longer than your inhale. Hold yourself gently, the way you’d hold a baby or a cuddly animal. Close your eyes if that helps. Just sitting like this for a few minutes can calm your nervous system.

3. Ask For Help
Our friends and family really love feeling useful. Let people know what they can do to help. You might have practical tasks that need doing. You might feel too anxious to drive and need a lift somewhere. You might need help with some of the other things on this list. Ask.

4. Repeat After Me
In the Hindu tradition, a mantra is a phrase or group of sounds with spiritual significance. Practitioners believe that by reciting a mantra you can bring about physical and spiritual changes in the body and in the world around you. You don’t need to be Hindu, or even spiritual, to try this technique. Essentially you either recite a phrase out loud or to yourself, repeating it until you feel more peaceful. The simplest mantra is ‘Om’ or ‘Oum’ and I do find that singing this out loud is very calming. I also have some favourite phrases that I repeat to myself. You can use any of these or come up with some of your own:
* This too shall pass
* It is what it is
* Let it go
* Where there is life there is hope
* You’re not dead yet!
Some people find the last one a bit macabre but I’ve found it useful to jolt me out of my downward spiral into imagining my own funeral.

5. Play Some Music
We all know music can have a profound effect on our emotions. I’ve put together a collection of music that either helps me to relax or lifts my mood and I use it to ease my passage through the anxiety tunnel. I like ‘Sacred Earth’ with their kirtan inspired repertoire for relaxation, along with just about anything composed to accompany yoga. To lift my spirits I’ve got songs I like to listen to or sing, particularly “I will survive”.

6. Exercise
Anxiety means your body gets flooded with adrenaline and cortisol. It’s these hormones that give you the jitters and keep you awake at night. Exercise is a great way to help your body process these chemicals and return to normal. A caution here; ‘boot camp’ styles of exercise (including those where your internal talk sounds like a boot camp instructor) will make things worse because they generate more adrenaline and cortisol. You need exercise that is a combination of strenuous and relaxing. Try a brisk walk in a beautiful location, riding a bike, dancing to music, yoga or lifting weights that are well within your capacity. If you’re a gym member and your local gym has a power plate (a vibrating thing that you stand on) these are reputed to help your body reduce cortisol. Worth a try.

7. If You’re Feeling Crabby, Get to Water
Warm baths, warm showers, a swim in the ocean on a hot day, a hot tub or spa bath, all of these have the potential to help you relax when you’re feeling crabby. If the weather is warm enough, one of my favourites is to float on my back in a pool and look at the sky. I remember that my mind is like the sky and my thoughts are like the clouds. They will pass.

8. Meditation and Mindfulness
It’s possibly the most common prescription for anxiety and the one least taken. It think that’s because even sitting still is difficult when we’re in the tunnel. Our minds are so noisy and busy that even the suggestion of meditation seems laughable. Of course, the times we most need meditation are the times when it seems the hardest to achieve! I’ve found some recordings that I really like and when I’m feeling anxious I know these will help. I’ll admit that I’m sometimes on day three or four of my anxiety before I reluctantly admit to myself that it’s about time I stuck the headphones in my ears. Even if you don’t feel like meditation you might like to try mindfulness. This is simply the act of being present, or paying attention to what’s right in front of you and living in the moment rather than worrying about the future or the past. There’s a lot of great mindfulness and meditation resources on the net. Just google to find something that suits you.

9. Decide How Busy You Want To Be
Some people negotiate the tunnel best when they are alone, or just in the company of a few chosen companions. Others are best distracted by company or activities. Which are you? It’s good to have a clear idea of how busy you want to be before you enter the tunnel. If you know you’re better off alone then clear the decks, batten down the hatches and give yourself permission to nest. If you need to be occupied then think about what kind of activities will help. Most recently I happened to find lumps just before a long weekend with two big gatherings scheduled. Both were a welcome distraction. Some people follow the ‘laughter is the best medicine’ recommendation and break out comedy DVDs or even children’s movies. If you’ve never seen ‘The Leggo Movie’ I highly recommend it. The big message here is that it’s okay to put yourself first in this situation, regardless of your prior obligations or anyone’s expectations. People will understand.

10. Contact
It’s usually when my husband opens his arms and says “come here” that I remember the profound effect that physical contact can have on anxiety. Just having someone hold you for a while can make a world of difference. When I’m anxious I appreciate all the contact I can get. I’ll sometimes pay for a massage or ask a friend for a hug. Even having someone hold my hands helps. Physical connection helps us feel safe and cherished. I think of all my strategies for dealing with anxiety, this one is the most effective.

A Warning About Flow
I’ve seen a lot of articles that recommend using whatever it is that puts you into ‘flow’ for dealing with anxiety. For those unfamiliar with the concept, flow is that experience of enjoying something so much that time just seems to fly by; you are so engrossed in the activity that it captures your full attention. Essentially this is another version of mindfulness. My concern is that if you attempt a favourite activity while you’re anxious there’s the potential for stress to suck the joy out of it. I love gardening. Sometimes when I’m anxious, being in the garden is a great way to anchor myself in the present and occupy my mind. Other times it’s a half-hearted distraction that adds to my anxiety as I find myself making obvious mistakes or becoming submerged in my own thoughts. If you find that a favourite ‘flow’ activity helps you to achieve mindfulness then that’s a great strategy, but be prepared to abandon it and try something else if it’s just making you more anxious.

So that’s my top ten.

Please consider it a menu rather than a prescription.

These are the things I find useful but they might not appeal to you. I’d encourage you to try some of them, even if they feel a bit awkward or odd. Reading about dealing with anxiety is a bit like reading about riding a bike. You’re not going to achieve anything until you actually have a go.

You might feel a bit challenged and out of balance at first but with patience and practice you’ll probably find that things get easier. I’d also encourage anyone that’s feeling overwhelmed by anxiety to seek the support of a professional psychologist or counsellor, particularly one with training in Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT).

You do not need to spend the rest of your life living in the anxiety tunnel. It is possible to return to having a happy and rewarding life.

If you can’t afford to pay for a therapist then contact cancer support organisations in your area or google phone and online support services. One of the positives of dealing with cancer is that there’s a lot of great support out there.

There is light at the end of the tunnel.

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