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Fear and Anxiety: be-friending these emotions

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November 23 2015

Posted in: Tips, Mind-body-medicine,

Fear and Anxiety: Be-friending these emotions with short term strategies and long term solutions.

By Anne Pitman, OICC Care Coordinator & Yoga Therapist.

Cancer creates a whirlwind of emotions.  As well as making decisions, looking at options, and getting treatments, most people facing cancer experience fear and anxiety, sometimes panic.  It can happen immediately upon hearing a diagnosis, or it can hit you when you least expect it.   The rug gets pulled out from underneath you.  All of a sudden, your life and your future are uncertain; all the things you have planned, put on hold.  You might even be afraid you will die, sooner than you had imagined, if you have imagined death at all.  Even if your cancer is immensely treat-able, the shadow is always there.  Your heart pumps, you sweat, feel dizzy, and you desperately want your life back.  Worry can become your constant companion.

While fear is an immediate response to outside stressors, anxiety can be a long term pattern, appearing sometimes in the absence of any outside influence.  If a cancer diagnosis is traumatic, one can experience PTSD-like symptoms, including panic attacks and ongoing anxiety symptoms.  Definitely check with your health care providers (family doctors, naturopathic doctors) to see if there is something that requires treatment.  At the OICC we work WITH anxiety and fear, acute and long term.

Acute Strategies – Panic First Aid

When a full-on panic attack happens, there are many things you can do to help yourself.  Most strategies bring you back to your body, back to this moment, and change the immediate pattern of thinking or nervous system dominance.  Although they can be described separately, the following strategies work holistically, on all fronts at once.  So, while in an anxiety or panic attack, try these ideas as first aid, if you can.  Please try to remember that anxiety is not wrong.  It feels wrong, but it is natural.  We add several layers of guilt and self-recrimination when we make up a story that we shouldn’t be feeling what we are actually feeling (for example, “I’m supposed to be thinking positively and all I am is scared”).   Any technique will be difficult if we are more afraid of the fear than of the thing we are fearing.  Nothing is wrong with fear.  It’s just that our body can react in big ways, no matter how small the issue presenting, if we have some history with trauma.
All the following strategies interrupt the pattern of the fear.  However, when we are in a panicked state, we simply can’t think clearly, so trying to focus on some things to do to help, can be very difficult.  They do take some practice.  It can also be helpful if you have a friend or loved one who can initially guide you.

  • Back to the Body – This strategy attempts to remind you that you have a body.  Seems obvious, but when you are in fear, it is like you are not embodied.  It can be a feeling of floating or falling.
    Try feeling your hands.  Get very curious about whether you can feel them.  Do the same with your feet.  If you can’t feel your body from the inside, pat your legs.  See if you can feel that.  Say to yourself or aloud “I have legs.  I have feet” etc.  Or just try tilting your head a little bit, side to side, the next time you find yourself stuck in fear.    This especially helps if you get very rigid while in fear.
  • Into the Present Moment – When we are in fear, we are mostly worried about the future or re-living something that has happened in the past.  It can be settling to look around and remind yourself that you are here now, in the present.  An accessible way to do this is do something very practical and obvious, like count colours.  Look around the room –“I see one blue couch.  One red vase.  Two green glasses. One beige carpet” etc.  Or if you can remember to use more of your senses, find five things that you can see, four things that you can touch, three things you can hear and one thing you can taste.
  • Find the Earth – Because feeling anxious can be so dizzying, or disorienting, it can be helpful to bring your attention to the ground.  Literally.  You might find a way to crouch down with your hands on the floor. Or if you are not in a public place, lie down on the floor or earth.  Feel your body weight.  Feel all the areas that your body is contacting the floor.  Roll around.  Very slowly. 
    Feel each moment your body is in contact.
  • Reassuring the Nervous System – We’ve all heard about deep breathing as a way to combat panic, but it is very hard to catch your breath when you are in a panic.  Focus on the exhalation, and let the inhalation take care of itself.  Breathe out as much as you can while counting.  Next breath, maybe extend the exhalation by one count.  Then again, the next breath, by one count until you are able to breathe out to the end of your breath.  This will take time.  Focusing on the out-breath stimulates the para-sympathetic nervous system, assuring your body that it is not in imminent danger, and can slowly bring all the systems of the body back to, or close to, homeostasis.
Long Term Solutions

While the above are useful, short term solutions, there are many practices and activities that can help to support long term changes in the nervous system and how we perceive the world.  Investigate yoga, t’ai chi, exercise (walking, running, weight lifting, dancing, swimming), acupuncture, reflexology and so many more.  These work to release tension, gently shift the hormonal context of the body, and help to re-balance the nervous system.  

Join Anne for Gentle Yoga Classes - Every Friday at 12:30 pm

Experience quiet reflection and ease of movement in a unique unhurried yoga class. 
Open to anyone - people at any stage of the cancer journey; from diagnosis to treatment
to those post treatment, caregivers, and staff at the OICC. No experience in yoga necessary.

Learn more here!


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