Chronic illnesses like cancer, diabetes and heart disease each pack their own specific problems.
But few people realize these diagnoses often trigger a new kind of anxiety. Suddenly, every ache and pain can set off bouts of intense worry.
Even the most grounded people can start to wonder if—on top of all their other health problems—they are suddenly turning into hypochondriacs.
A little anxiety is actually a good thing, noted Kiran Taylor, MD, a psychiatrist with Spectrum Health Medical Group Supportive Care Medicine, which provides support for cancer patients.
Increased vigilance might even be life-saving, helping you identify new symptoms and dealing with them proactively.
“Anxiety, worry and even panic are all survival tactics, at a biological level,” she said. “We’re designed to have them—we want to know if a bear is coming to get us. It’s what activates that important fight-or-flight reaction.”
But there’s a difference between heightened vigilance and constant fretting.
“When worry begins impacting other areas of your life, and when it occurs to a greater or more intense degree than needed, it’s time to do something,” she said.
Cancer patients and survivors often refer to “scan-xiety,” for example, the intense worry that can come before routine follow-up tests.
“Those appointments can bring all that fear back,” she said. “Some people find it hard to sleep or eat in the days or even weeks before a test.” But if you’re feeling healthy and there are no new symptoms, “that fear is not aligning with the reality of the threat.”
While anxiety is common enough in general, affecting about 19.1 percent of the population in a given year according to the National Institute of Mental Health, it is much higher for people with chronic illnesses.
As many as 40 percent of cancer patients develop significant stress, including worry, panic attacks and even post-traumatic stress disorder, for example. Depression is also related: Those with diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis are up to six times more likely to suffer from depression, reports the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
The good news is that health care providers are becoming increasingly aware of the impact chronic illness has on emotional health, and there’s plenty of help available.
Dr. Taylor’s 4 tips for managing emotional health:
1. Spend more time in your happy place
Self-care basics—including eating well, getting plenty of rest and doing things that make you feel relaxed—all help. Exercise can be part of that, Taylor said, and evidence shows it helps with both anxiety and depression.
But curling up with a good book, spending more time with loved ones or starting a journal about your feelings is also nourishing.
“The idea is to find ways that help you calm yourself down when you feel the anxiety starting to escalate.”
2. Consider short-term therapy
While many people still think of talk therapy as something that requires years on a couch, short-term therapy is effective for treating both anxiety and depression, typically between 10 and 20 sessions.
Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on identifying inaccurate thinking, such as overblown fears, and finding ways to manage them. And acceptance and commitment therapy helps people come to terms with their health issues, accept the thoughts and feelings that come with them and commit to making changes.
3. Talk to your medical team
Don’t be shy about telling doctors how you’re feeling, even if they don’t specifically ask about anxiety levels. They can help refer you to behavioral health specialists, or provide tips on managing your mental health.
Keep in mind that effective medications are also available to help manage both anxiety and depression and can be a valuable part of your treatment plan.
4. Focus on what you can control
While there’s no magic wand that can make serious illnesses vanish, working on the many things that are in your control is powerful medicine, Dr. Taylor said.
“There may not be much you can do about your genetic risks, for instance,” she said. “But there are plenty of small behavioral changes—including how you deal with your worries—that can make you feel less helpless and more in charge.”