Cancer and PTSD: Coping Strategies That Work

Being diagnosed with cancer can be a traumatic experience. Many patients have feelings of fear, anxiety, and hopelessness, which can lead to post-traumatic stress. Research shows 1 in 5 people with cancer had PTSD and more than 35 percent of cancer survivors experience feelings of PTS.

Triggers of PTS and PTSD in cancer patients and survivors can include:

  • Diagnosis of cancer
  • Undergoing surgery
  • Chemotherapy or radiation
  • Anticipating test results
  • Hospitalizations
  • Failed treatment
  • Returning to the doctor’s office for follow-up visits
  • Cancer recurrence

The four categories of PTS and PTSD symptoms include (1) intrusive memories, (2) avoidance, (3) changes in physical and emotional reactions, and (4) negative changes in thinking or mood. Signs and symptoms can vary over time or differ from person to person.

Science-Approved Ways for Cancer Patients to Cope With PTSD

Are you a cancer patient or survivor struggling with post-traumatic stress? These strategies may help reduce the intensity of your anxiety and lessen the frequency of your attacks.

  1. Progressive Muscle Relaxation

For decades, relaxation exercises have helped millions of people around the world reduce stress and anxiety. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), to be specific, focuses on alternating between tensing and relaxing muscle groups throughout the body. This relaxation technique is similar to a pendulum. Complete relaxation of your muscles is obtainable by first going to the other extreme (tensing your muscles). By tensing your muscles, which is a common symptom of anxiety, and then immediately relaxing them, the symptom of muscle tension may become a signal to unwind over time.

  1. Expressive Writing

Journaling is a good way to express your thoughts and emotions and manage post-traumatic stress. A 2015 study also found that expressive writing improves physical and psychological health.

In PTSD, expressive writing offers many benefits, including reduced PTSD symptoms, tension, and anger, improved coping mechanisms, and experiencing post-traumatic growth (being able to find meaning and having positive life changes after a traumatic event).

  1. Deep Breathing 

This may come as a surprise, but many people do not breathe properly. Natural breathing involves the diaphragm, a large muscle in the abdomen. When you breathe in, your stomach should expand. When you exhale, your stomach should fall downward.

Nowadays, most people breathe using their chest and shoulders, causing short and shallow breaths that can increase stress and anxiety.

If you haven’t been breathing the right way, the good news is you can re-learn how to breathe deeply from your diaphragm and protect yourself from stress and anxiety.

  1. Mindfulness 

Although mindful exercises have been around for ages, mental health professionals are only beginning to recognize that mindfulness is beneficial for people with depression and anxiety.

Many of us are often stuck in our heads, worrying about what hasn’t happened and caught up in the anxiety and worries of life. Mindfulness is about being in touch with the present. It may allow you to get out of your head and focus on the moment in front of you.

  1. Social Support

Several studies found that getting support from others can be a significant factor in overcoming the adverse effects of a traumatic event and PTSD.

If you have someone you trust, letting them in may help you work through stressful situations or acquire emotional validation.

However, having someone to talk to may not be enough, especially if that person doesn’t understand the extent of what you’re going through. There are many important aspects in a supportive relationship that may be beneficial in helping you manage your stress and anxiety, which is why joining a cancer support group may be the most effective approach.

  1. Purposeful Distraction

Purposeful use of “distractions” can help you cope with strong and unpleasant emotions such as fear and anxiety. A distraction is anything that can temporarily shift your attention away from strong emotions. By distracting yourself, you can cause your anxiety and other negative feelings to decrease in intensity, which can make them easier to manage.

According to the audience of the International Bipolar Foundation, here are some effective ways to distract yourself from anxiety:

  • Take a walk or exercise
  • Listen to soothing music
  • Read a book or magazine
  • Cuddle with a pet
  • Nap or lay down for a while
  1. Professional Help 

Do you need help from a mental health professional? Ask yourself:

  • Am I irritable all the time?
  • Am I easily distracted or unable to focus?
  • Am I struggling to think clearly?
  • Do I have difficulty sleeping?
  • Have I been avoiding people or places?
  • Do I have repeated uncomfortable or scary thoughts?
  • Am I no longer interested in activities I used to enjoy?
  • Have I been feeling detached from reality?

If your answer to most of these questions is yes, then seeking professional help is often for the best.

Not everyone wants to see a therapist nor admit that they need one. However, the benefits of doing so are too good to ignore. There are professionals who specialize in treating cancer patients and survivors with PTSD and can guide you throughout the entire process. They can help you learn more about your condition — your triggers, what calms you, how to be in control of your emotions, and implement a customized treatment for you.

The Bottom Line

There is no overnight miracle for PTS and PTSD. It’s crucial that you adopt healthy coping strategies and avoid unhealthy practices — including drinking alcohol, smoking, or chewing your fingernails  — which do nothing more than mask your symptoms and harm your mental health even further. Treating PTS and PTSD is a healing process that takes time and effort. It’s important to determine what coping strategies work for you and in what situations. If your stress and anxiety are taking over your life, do not hesitate to seek professional help.

Here at New Hope Unlimited, treatment options for post-traumatic stress can include relaxation techniques, meditation, and support groups to combat distress and soothe the mind. If you are looking for a cancer treatment center that also prioritizes mental health, call us at 480-666-1403 to schedule a consultation.

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