Strategies To Deal with Anxiety and Worry

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology, Social Work

SEPTEMBER 10, 2020

In these days of living through the COVID-19 pandemic and contending with cancer, all of us have many worries. Is it safe to get together with friends outside? Could I imagine getting on a plane to visit my sister? Do I need to wear a mask when I walk the dog at night? And the other collection: How long has my hip been hurting? What will the next CT scan show? Will I be sick with the next chemo?

Living through cancer during the coronavirus pandemic has given us all plenty more to worry about, and the weight can be crushing. The challenge is to not allow our fears to contaminate our days.

A friend recently told me of her grandmother's approach to worry. She had lived enough life and thought enough about this to develop and name a strategy: The Theory of Opposing Antagonists. It works this way: When you have more than one serious worry, the direction is to choose which one to worry about. You can shift back and forth, but the rule is that you can only fret about one thing at a time. The other must be closed away. This strategy seems especially useful now as we content with both cancer and the COVID-19 pandemic.

When I discussed this strategy with several of my patients, they liked it and immediately improved upon it. They found that the conscious act of shutting the door on, for example, their anxiety about an upcoming scan and thinking instead about whether their son or daughter was about to lose his/her job soon enabled them to put both issues aside. This is different from compartmentalization, a technique to put anxieties into private boxes and keep them apart from one another. That can be helpful in feeling a bit more in control, but it does not teach this useful technique of choosing your worry of the moment.

Here some other ways to reduce anxiety:
  • Think clearly about what is upsetting you. If there are at least two serious problems, choose which one to consider.
  • Put the other(s) aside with the plan to switch the topic of your distress at a particular time.
  • Put a time limit on each worry. Allow yourself to obsess about your upcoming appointment for one hour only.
  • Consider scheduling worry time. If upsetting thoughts occur to you at other times, remind yourself that you are only thinking about such things at 5:00 pm. Much of the time, when 5:00 pm comes around, you will be busy with something else.
  • Some people like the idea of writing their worries down on slips of paper and then putting them into a box. It can also work to write them on the computer and move them into a designated folder. What is important is then putting the box or the computer down and going on with your day.
  • Do not try to minimize your anxiety or convince yourself that something is not worth your upset. Your feelings are your feelings, and you are entitled to them.
  • Ask a friend or family member to become your Worry Buddy. You then agree to communicate daily or weekly to share your worries with each other. In between those conversations, you save them in one of the ways discussed above. When you speak together, you are not allowed to try to reassure each other or solve the problem. The only role is to listen.

Worry and problems are always a part of life and, unfortunately, cancer brings additional worries. Living through cancer during the coronavirus pandemic has given us all plenty more to worry about, and the weight can be crushing. The challenge is to not allow our fears to contaminate our days.

Remind yourself that, unless and until something actually is happening, it is not imperative to deal with it. We can work towards putting our worries aside and using our energy to make our days brighter.

Do any of these strategies to deal with worries appeal to you? Join the BIDMC Cancer Community and share your thoughts.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
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