What Is Anxiety?
When someone is anxious, they may experience nervousness, concern, feel “on edge”, or worried. Anxiety is a natural emotion that’s the product of your body responding to harm or threat. It does this so you understand something is wrong and want to fix it. There are two types of anxiety, each with its own set of symptoms and processes. These are acute and chronic, and symptoms range anywhere from mild to severe. The level of severity depends on the patient, their genetics, social and personal situation, and stage and site of illness. Sometimes symptoms of anxiety can be mistaken for depression because the two conditions tend to occur together.
Mesothelioma and Mental Health
Patients that develop mesothelioma or other severe disease go through a range of emotions and experiences they aren’t prepared for. New feelings that never existed may now push past the surface, beyond the patient’s control. It’s common for cancer patients to get feelings of anxiety, depression, and fear, among others, receiving a diagnosis is a very scary and shocking time after all. Additionally, when the body is sick, the immune system responds by sending out stress hormones and other chemicals that may negatively impact the patient’s mental health.
Living with mental health issues like anxiety and distress (among others) can really impact the quality of life for those also living with mesothelioma. Additionally, some cancer patients are more at risk for higher levels of distress than others, which is usually exacerbated by growing tumors, genetics, and other external factors. Other triggers that may affect a person’s anxiety levels are:
- Continued trouble doing everyday activities
- Issues at home
- Physical side effects of mesothelioma treatment (pain, nausea)
- Lack of social or spiritual satisfaction
- Predisposition for stress, depression, or other mental health complications
Almost half of cancer patients report high levels of distress and anxiety. Regardless if it’s mesothelioma, lung cancer, or other debilitating illness, patients usually report a negative correlation to their mental health. When a patient has high levels of anxiety, it can be difficult for them to cope with mesothelioma symptoms, treatments, side effects, or recovery. This makes it vital for patients and their loved ones to effectively identify symptoms of anxiety or distress.
When someone has short, intermittent feelings of distress, it’s known as acute anxiety. Symptoms of this are:
- Intense feelings of dread or fear
- Sense of being detached from self or surroundings
- Rapid heartbeat or heart palpitations
- Pain or tightness in the chest or abdominal area
- Loss of breath, feeling suffocated, hyperventilating, or other breathing issues
- Nausea, diarrhea, heartburn
- Change in appetite
Anxiety that’s chronic keeps coming back and lasts longer periods. This can also include multiple instances of acute anxiety. Symptoms can include:
- Muscle tension
- Anger and irritability
- Fatigue or weakness
- Trouble focusing and making decisions
Reach out to a doctor or healthcare provider if you or someone you know is exhibiting one or more of the above symptoms. These side effects may also be related to mesothelioma or treatments.
Anxiety Versus Panic Attack
While anxiety and panic attack symptoms are similar, a panic attack usually involves an isolated episode of extreme anxiety. If a person is going through a series of difficult events, they may experience multiple panic attacks in a shorter time. A panic attack encompasses most or all symptoms of acute anxiety at once, and at a higher intensity that can sometimes feel crippling.
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Coping Techniques for Acute Anxiety
When mesothelioma patients have extreme anxiety or are experiencing a panic attack, it can make a world of difference to have coping techniques at the forefront. When someone is in the middle of a panic attack, they may not be able to think straight, and bettering the situation may be tough or impossible. Bringing yourself back from this state of panic, calming, and refocusing yourself is also known as grounding. If you have issues with anxiety and need help in emergencies or even just extra stressful days, try these coping techniques:
This technique is an underestimated, simple, and highly effective coping method. Just a few, simple breaths repeated in a pattern can break a person’s thought process, slow their heart rate, and enable them to regain control. One effective breathing technique therapists recommend is called the 4-7-8 method. This involves the patient breathing in for four seconds, holding that breathe for seven seconds, and then breathing out slowly for eight seconds. Patients have reported this method helps with anxiety, stress, and insomnia. Other breathing practices helpful for patients with distress are:
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Controlled breathing through alternating nostrils by blocking one at a time.
Structured breathing while trying to focus on the current moment and nothing else.
Natural breathing that guides your mind gently on a similar path
Focused breathing surrounded by happy memories and stories that can help distract from worries.
Some therapists recommend patients use their five senses to help ground themselves during stressful times. Focusing on elements in these five categories distracts your panicking mind and forces it to comprehend new thoughts, which can almost immediately dissipate feelings of distress. It’s also known as the 5-4-3-2-1 method. Working backwards, you look for five things you can see and acknowledge in your mind and so on. Next, you’ll focus on four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. Once you’ve gone down the list of senses and acknowledged their presence, most people are almost fully calm again. Repeat these steps as many times as necessary until relaxed and able to function.
Using senses as a distraction is a coping technique that’s had success with many. Aromatherapy only utilizes the patient’s sense of smell. When using aromatherapy, patients can get oil, incense, or candles with their favorite scents. Activate these items when stress levels are high and watch them begin to plummet.
Not everyone is affected the same way by these coping techniques, and some may not feel any effects at all. Every patient is different and reacts to therapy accordingly.
Coping Techniques for Chronic Anxiety
Patients with chronic anxiety usually have to use different coping methods than those with acute symptoms. Mesothelioma patients with chronic issues can evaluate their triggers, or what makes them feel anxious, and try to get ahead of it.
Exercise and Diet
It’s no secret that adequate physical exercise and diet can help the body fight illness, and anxiety is no exception. Just don’t overdo it, too much exercise can cause more damage than good. Talk to your doctor about what level of exercise they recommend for your situation.
If mesothelioma symptoms, diagnosis, or treatment cause the patient anxiety, they can seek professional support. Even family members or loved ones can help. Support options include healthcare provider, support pet, family member, therapist, psychiatrist, chaplain, counselor, or loved one. Sometimes, having a person (or pet) be there for the patient is all the support they need to alleviate mesothelioma anxieties. Additionally, therapists or other support can provide more techniques and personal experiences to offer as guidance.
Specialized and general support groups are also available either online or in-person for patients. Here, they can share and exchange knowledge with similar people about their experiences, concerns, and ways to cope. When patients acquire knowledge or learn more about their situation, disease, treatments, or recovery, they may feel lasting relief and comfort. Once triggers and gaps in knowledge are identified, the patient can take proactive steps to learn more, avoid triggers, and minimize their chronic anxiety.
For severe cases, doctors may prescribe medication. This depends on the patient’s treatment and medication history, as well as their overall mental and physical health. The doctor will screen the patient and ensure medication is the best route. Some physicians may pair medications with other therapy recommendations too.
Concerned mesothelioma patients should get screened for anxiety, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). Additionally, they recommend screenings take place right after cancer diagnosis and throughout the patient’s mesothelioma timeline. Studies show that cancer patients with anxiety that find adequate support and coping methods can boost immune system function and help the body fight illness.