Cleaning Up Your Act: How to Deal with Anxiety, Safely and Productively

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Cancer can be extremely stressful, and none of us, no matter how strong, is immune to the occasional emotional meltdown (or blowup). Learning to handle fear and anxiety effectively — and efficiently — is key to preventing your stress from distressing those around you.

Recognize and deal with your ‘stress flags’

Just as a teakettle whistles when the water inside starts to boil, so too do you give off certain signals when you’re about to lose control. Understanding and noticing signs of advanced stress are key to heading off a “scene.” Here are some typical outward signs of stress — and what to do about them.

  • Short, brusque answers. When someone asks you a question or initiates conversation, you may hear what they say as pure interruption — and you’re liable to answer quickly and thoughtlessly. When you’re tempted to react to being “interrupted” by snapping back an answer, stop. Smile, and make a conscious decision to be polite.

  • The elaborate sigh. When everyone around you is busy with their own affairs, you may find yourself demanding attention via a big, noticeable sigh. “I’m stressed! No one cares! Pay attention to me!” While deep breathing — a big sigh — can definitely relax you, it doesn’t have to be audible. Instead, take a long breath; hold it for several seconds; then release, pushing as much air out of your lungs as possible. Repeat. Go back to work.

  • Small acts of physical violence. This doesn’t mean the all-out, object-throwing temper tantrum, but rather slamming a door, making fists, or even simply screwing your face into a major grimace. Your body is a reflection of your mind; but your mind can reflect your body, too. Force your muscles to relax; make your lips smile. Consciously changing your body from uptight to relaxed can help calm your mind as well.

  • Unusual impatience. While you may think that standing in line for a couple of minutes at the supermarket or waiting behind a slow-thinker at a stop sign creates stress, these types of situations can signal that you’re already on edge. When you find normal situations inducing feelings of angry impatience, ask yourself this question: does it really matter? If it does (e.g., you’re about to miss your flight), don’t waste time bemoaning your situation when you could be formulating plan B. But if it doesn’t (you’re tired and want to get home), find something positive to focus on: the great dinner you’re planning for tonight, or a pretty patch of wildflowers alongside the road.

When you simply have to vent

Sometimes stress is so overwhelming that self-control goes right out the window. If you find yourself in this situation — despite recognizing your stress flags, you’re unable to calm down — here’s what to do (and what not to do).

  • Do vent — in private. Hop into your car. Find an empty room, preferably soundproofed. Take a walk. Your goal is to put some space between you and anyone else, particularly anyone you care about. Once you’ve found your safe space, let it all out: scream, cry, throw rocks at trees. This physical manifestation of stress is exactly what you need to dispel it. You’ll soon run out of energy, and find that stress has been replaced by relaxation.

  • Don’t take your anger out on those around you. You may think your 2-year-old tipping over a glass of juice warrants the angry reaction you’re handing him or her; it doesn’t. Your stress is making you see an innocent accident as a willful act of misbehavior. Even when someone close to you behaves badly, they don’t deserve an over-the-top reaction. After all, how many times have you seen aggressive negativity create a positive outcome? Violent anger is never part of the solution. But anger defused — and stress relieved — is the first step toward welcome serenity.

See More Helpful Articles:

Breast Cancer: Relieving Stress, One Step at a Time

Fear: Strictly Optional

The Vicious Cycle: Stress and Cancer

Resolved: An End to Panic, Stress, and Fear

Coping with Stress and Anxiety Through Breast Cancer Treatment


Breast cancer survivor and award-winning author PJ Hamel, a long-time contributor to the HealthCentral community, counsels women with breast cancer through the volunteer program at her local hospital. She founded and manages a large and active online survivor support network.