You may need to manage scanxiety – scan anxiety – when living with illness every few months, once a year or on the occasion when something isn’t right and you need to get it checked out. This type of anxiety can also apply to other medical investigative tests.
It’s not fun, I experienced it the other week. And I’ve experienced it many times in the past when I’ve had MRIs, other unpleasant investigative tests, and as a carer. I learned it can be an up and down process – you may get some good news, then some not-so-good news, then some reassurance, and then you wait days/weeks/months for the final verdict.
Feeling a degree of scanxiety is normal
Because as you go through the process of scans, procedures, etc, you don’t know what the medical professionals will find and what it may mean. If you feel the anxiety is getting in the way – how often you think about it, your sleep, or getting through the procedure/scan/treatment itself for example – then here are 10 ideas on how to manage it.
I largely refer to managing the anxiety during the scan or procedure but some of the ideas are also applicable before and after it. When I talk about anxiety in this context, I am not referring to a clinical diagnosis of anxiety. If you have a diagnosis of anxiety, you may find the ideas mentioned here useful.
My experience of scanxiety
In my case, the scan came about because something wasn’t quite right for a few months – breast pain. Given it was recurring and it felt like something was in the way inside my breast but I couldn’t feel a lump, I saw the GP. The GP referred me for a scan and 11 days later I was sitting in my local hospital.
I saw the consultant. She did a manual exam and couldn’t find any lumps. I felt relief. She sent me for a scan.
I got changed and waited for the scan.
I had the mammogram. It was uncomfortable but went ok.
I sat in the scan seating area. They asked me to come back to redo some of the mammogram scans.
I could feel the anxiety rise a notch.
Afterwards, they came back and said the consultant wanted an ultrasound.
I felt the anxiety increasing.
Whilst doing the ultrasound, the consultant said they found something.
When I get news like that, I have a ‘deer in the headlights’ moment
I can feel the anxiety spike high, and my eyes open wide. I feel very scared in those moments.
The consultant said it was in the other breast, the one that had been ok. It was a lump but one that was well-defined – a fibroadenoma.
I said to her, “I should be asking questions but I can’t. My mind had gone blank.”
I could feel the anxiety increasing
She said it was most likely not cancerous, but they wanted to check it out further by doing a biopsy, they could do that at another time but could also do it now. I don’t remember actually saying yes, I may have, but what I was saying and tone of voice indicated yes. She proceeded to prepare for the biopsy.
I was full of nervous chatter during it describing what had happened when I had a lumbar puncture when they had to get a bigger needle so this shouldn’t be so bad. That was a way of me calming myself by telling myself and them I had been through worse.
I was noticing how tense my muscles were and I would remind myself to relax and breathe. At the end the consultant said I had been very brave. I didn’t feel brave. I berated myself silently. The doctor shouldn’t have to say that to me. Notice that should, because we are coming back to it. I reminded myself to take from the consultant’s words what she was giving – comfort. I then joked with the nurse asking if I could get a gold star.
A gold star for getting through being poked and prodded
The scans and procedures finished and it was back to the main waiting area to wait to see the consultant. I suddenly felt emotional. It was a familiar feeling. After a round of being poked and prodded by medical professionals I can feel emotional. Also, I’ve been having tests for other things recently and have a treatment coming up so it just felt like something else to deal with. I just wanted to curl up and be looked after by someone else.
I saw the consultant, who said the lump is usually not an issue and if all is ok, they would leave it where it is. But they would let me know the results of the biopsy in the next week. I referred to the anxiety I was feeling and the doctor said they wanted to be thorough.
And that was it I thought and even said, ‘It’s a balance to maintain between the medical professionals being thorough and the anxiety the patient may be feeling.’ That sounds clumsy but that was the key learning for me.There’s a balance to maintain between the medical professionals being thorough and the #anxiety you may be feeling during the #medicalprocedure or #scan tell a friend
The doctors want to do their best so they will be thorough
Although modern medicine can do so many great and amazing things, it is not always a precise science. So expect the unexpected to happen and if it doesn’t, that’s great.
The patient manages their scanxiety as best they can so the doctors can do their scans, tests, etc.
Learning and practicing techniques to manage our anxiety is in our control. Given we can control our breath, mind and muscles, those are great starting points to manage any anxiety we may experience.
Here’s what helped me keep scanxiety from taking over
Anxiety was definitely present for me, but I managed to keep it in check enough to get through the scan and discussion with the consultant afterwards. Here’s what helped.
Sort the basics so you have one less thing to worry about
- Read the information they send you in advance so you know what will happen on the day. If you have questions before the appointment, call the hospital.
- Bring something to do during the times you have to wait like a book or magazine to read, paper to draw or write on, your iPad or phone to watch tv or listen to music, your knitting, whatever. This is a healthy distraction which helps to keep the anxiety at bay.
- If you will be there for a while, bring food and drink provided you can eat/drink during the procedure you’re having. Sometimes it’s hard to get away as when you are waiting, you don’t always know when you will be called in to see the consultant or have a scan/procedure. So best not to sit there hungry or thirsty.
Be prepared for the discussions with the consultant. Being well informed can calm scanxiety
- Be prepared with these generic questions in case they want to do another procedure or suggest a new treatment. They will help you to collect the information you need to make an informed decision. You may not have to use them but being prepared can be a comfort.
- What is this procedure/treatment/drug meant to achieve?
- What are my options? (are there other options for example)
- What are the specific benefits and potential harm to me? (pros and cons)
- What happens if I do nothing?
- What should I watch out for? (after treatment, the procedure or starting new medication, i.e. side effects, having a relapse, etc.)
- Are there any questions I haven’t asked that other patients typically ask?
- Who can I contact if I have a follow-up question?
(Questions 2, 3, 4 were obtained from this excellent article.)
Looking after your mental health is a good antidote to scanxiety
- Find a release for your anxiety during the procedure that doesn’t get in the way of completing it – Chattering and joking, when it’s possible, are mine. If that, breathing, counting, or something else helps you to be brave, go for it. I have in the past told medical professionals that I would probably chat or use humour to calm my nerves and get through the procedure. They were never surprised. They’ve seen it all before.
- Keep yourself in the present moment – Focusing on your breath and breathing is a healthy distraction from wondering how the test is going, what are they finding, etc. However, if breathing has an impact on the procedure (there are procedures where you may have to hold your breath or breathe a certain way), then focus on what is in front of you – what you see, what you are holding on to, etc. Or ask if you can wear headphones during the procedure as you may be able to listen to a podcast or your favourite music.
- Have a mental happy place you can take yourself to – favourite holiday spot, a place you’ve always wanted to travel to, imaginary dream home, you score the winning goal in the World Cup final (whenever England get there), you achieve something great you’ve always wanted to, etc. This is a day dream that makes you feel happy.
- Have pen and paper with you to write down how you are feeling or use your phone to type it out while you are waiting. That is how this blog post was born.
- If thoughts are being pesky like annoying internet pop-up windows, imagine crumpling them up and throwing them in the medical waste bin. Or being taken away by a healthcare professional leaving the room. Or imagine putting the thought on a cloud and watching a strong wind blow it away. And if you find your self-talk containing a lot of ‘I should have…’, stop and remind yourself to be gentle with yourself.
Tap into quality support from others to lessen your scanxiety
- If you can, take someone with you to the procedure/treatment. Having someone else to talk to whilst you are waiting for procedures and scans can be a good distraction, enjoyable, and calming. If that is not possible, call or visit a good friend or family member afterwards to talk about it. I dropped in on a friend of mine on the way home (unannounced) and she fed me tasty vegetarian lentils and chocolate cake. Her company and food were very restorative! It really helped to calm the scanxiety I had been feeling.
These 10 tips are a starting point. Keep seeking to learn new techniques and approaches so you have a toolbox of them. That way, if you can’t use one during a procedure or scan, you can use another one.
What’s it like for you?
What have you found to help you keep scanxiety at bay during procedures, scans and doctor appointment? Share your thoughts in the comments below as we may all learn something new to add to our toolbox.
If you are living with a chronic illness or the after effects of a serious illness, or are caring for someone who is and would like support to manage anxiety and have good relationships with healthcare professionals, have a look at how we can work together and get in touch for a free no obligation consultation.
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© Copyright Barbara Babcock 2018