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When to Seek Treatment for Psychological and Emotional Distress - Part I

Psychologist Rick Wirtz shares his expertise on dealing with anxiety or distress when faced with a serious or life-threatening illness.

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In the work that I do in an oncologist's office, the nursing staff helps me screen new patients with a very short symptom checklist that helps us identify people who are in significant emotional distress.  As you can imagine, the symptoms associated with depression and anxiety are often prevalent and fairly intense at the time of the initial appointment with the oncologist.  There is so much that is unknown for the patient and family at that time, that anxiety is usually quite high.  Although I am using my work with cancer patients as an example, the same could be said about anyone potentially suffering from a serious or life-threatening illness.

Despite this distress, unless you have a significant history of moderate to severe episodes of anxiety or depression, this is probably not the time to be thinking about major treatment options.  In fact, at this stage of the game the best approach is simply voicing your fears or concerns to your treatment team or others who have gone through similar experiences.  This will usually allow you to get the information that you need to lower some of the anxiety or distress to a manageable level while your treatment plan is being formulated.  As you might imagine, as more information becomes available, most people begin to experience a decrease in the distress they were feeling.

Whether we are talking about cancer or some other life-threatening condition, any recommended procedure or treatment that we are unfamiliar with will be frightening.  Therefore, it is common for people to remain very tense or unsettled until they know the plan and are actually undergoing the procedures or treatments.  I see this happen over and over again with the cancer patients I work with.  Due to scheduling, it is not uncommon for me to be unable to see the person until they have begun their treatment.  Often times, even those who were in significant distress at the time of their first appointment have become only mildly symptomatic by the time I see them.  This is because they have gotten most of their questions answered and now know what the treatment process is like and how they feel afterward.

So, in the very early stages of diagnosis, treatment planning, and treatment, it is best to talk to your treatment team or people who have gone through similar procedures.  This is typically enough to get you through the frightening first stages without the need for psychological or psychiatric intervention. 

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