How to deal with anxiety after being diagnosed with an illness

Psychologist Nick Petrovic highlights some signs of anxiety that people might experience after being diagnosed with a health problem.

It’s normal – and pretty common – to feel anxious when you are diagnosed with a serious illness such as cancer or heart disease. Some people may find themselves experiencing moments of fear, panic and anxiety as they grapple with the notion of possible death, the difficulties or potential side effects associated with their treatment, or the prospect of becoming dependent on others.

Anxiety symptoms

Anxiety symptoms may be mild or severe, and they may be experienced suddenly for a short period of time (acute anxiety), or over an extended period of time (chronic anxiety).

Anxiety symptoms can be particularly confusing for people with serious illnesses because some illnesses, as well as some medicines or treatments, can also produce similar feelings and reactions. It is important to monitor your physical and emotional state, and speak to your doctor if you are experiencing any of the following symptoms.

Acute anxiety 

Symptoms of acute anxiety can include: 

  • Experiencing intense fear or dread
  • Feeling detached from yourself or your surroundings 
  • Heart palpitations and/or rapid heartbeat 
  • Being short of breath 
  • Chest pain 
  • High blood pressure 
  • Feeling dizzy or light-headed 
  • Feeling of suffocation 
  • Abdominal pain 
  • Chills 
  • Sweating 
  • Trembling 
  • Nausea, diarrhoea, heartburn 
  • Changes in appetite

Husband and wife

Chronic anxiety 

Symptoms of chronic anxiety can include:
  • Excessive worrying 
  • Muscle tension 
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue 
  • Insomnia 
  • Restlessness 
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Indecision

Getting educated

Anxiety is often driven by a fear of the unknown. Following a diagnosis a person can quickly find themselves drowning in the possible negative outcomes they may experience. Some people may experience feelings of helplessness or hopelessness. Ask your doctor or health care team for information about your condition and your treatment to help you get back a sense of control.

Anxiety is often driven by a fear of the unknown.

Seeking help

While it can be difficult to distinguish between normal levels of worry and more serious anxiety symptoms following a diagnosis, if you find that any of your symptoms are affecting your daily life, consider seeking help and speak to your doctor.

Medicines and psychological treatments are available to help people with anxiety symptoms. A good first step is to speak to your doctor or a trained psychologist about the symptoms you have been experiencing. Be open with them and give as much detail as possible.

While anxiety, which evolved to alert our bodies to potential threat, is a normal and healthy part of human behaviour, this natural response designed to help you can sometimes become a problem. Getting on top of anxiety symptoms can improve your ability to function overall, and can also improve your ability to address your health diagnosis and focus on your wellbeing.

To learn more about anxiety and how to get help please visit beyondblue.

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