The Anxiety Reduction Plan

outlivingit

As featured on First Descent’s Out Living It blog

This blog was featured on First Descent’s Out Living It blog. First Descent’s is a non-profit that offers young adult cancer survivors (FREE) adventure trips where they learn the healing power of community and nature through participating in activities such as kayaking, rock climbing and surfing. In September 2016, I attended a First Descents Surf Program in Santa Cruz, California. Read about that here. If you’re interested in learning more about this wonderful organization, check out their website, https://firstdescents.org.

If you’re reading this, you don’t need me to tell you that cancer is a sneaky trickster. The disease invaded every corner of my life and just when I think I’ve got it figured out, it jumps up and grabs me from behind. It’s latest surprise – anxiety.

I was diagnosed three years ago. In retrospect, it’s pretty incredible anxiety only recently crept into the equation. For some reason, I thought I would get by unscathed by this common side effect of cancer.

My relationship with anxiety started one morning in March. I woke up to a missed call from my doctor’s office. It wasn’t even my oncologists office, but the mere presence of a doctor’s number in my call log triggered a misfire in my brain causing me paralyzing fear. I could not do anything the entire day but obsess about how I was going to suffer and die. Instead, I spent my waking hours crying, clenching every muscle and felt as if my lungs were closing in on themselves. The next day, I was fine.

A few weeks later, it happened again.

I often see articles suggesting anxiety victims to relax, exercise, meditate, get enough sleep, focus on the positive, etc. Admittedly, I might have even doled out some of this terrible advice myself in the past. After much thought, I realized the reason this is bad advice is because it’s not specific enough. Talking with my therapist, she explained that in the midst of anxiety, our brains do not function sufficiently where we can even come up with ideas to make ourselves feel better. She then urged me to create an Anxiety Reduction Plan consisting of specific activities I can execute when anxiety strikes. Here’s what I came up with for myself:

Go for a walk, run or to yoga
Call a friend to hang out
Memorize, write out and repeat to myself (I can now recite three Maya Angelou poems, the seven axioms of yoga teacher training and countless famous quotes)
Do a (yoga) forward fold (this pose has been proven to reduce anxiety)
Close my eyes and take 10 (or 100) deep breaths
Write a reminder message on my hand (“You’re okay,” is my go-to)
Write a list of 100 things I’m grateful for
Clean the fridge, floors, garage (I love organizing)
Go to a park with some markers and a coloring book
Send a card or gift to someone I’m thinking about
Do a random act of kindness
Paint something
Take a bath or shower (something about water and being clean makes me happy)
Create and execute a schedule (7-7:30 drink coffee and catch-up on news, 7:30-8 shower and get ready, 8-12 work, 12-1 lunch, etc., etc. Sometimes, I just go through the motions, but it’s better than obsessing all day)

Now, when I wake up and feel the walls closing in, I pull out my sheet of paper and start running down the list. As a disclaimer, I’ll admit that going through these motions does not always take away or reduce the anxiety, but for stretches of time I am redirected, which provides doses of solace.

As it turns out, my therapist and I are not on the brink of discovering a new physiological method. I recently listened to the Good Life Project podcast and later found a Ted Talk describing the approach the American Psychological Association calls, Positive Activity Interventions. Their studies also show being told or trained to “think positive” and/or confronting past trauma isn’t enough. Instead, their research revealed consistent simple actions, such as those listed above, not only make the miserable less miserable, but, over time, reinforce positive states of mind and improve levels of happiness.

So, what’s on your plan? Now, write it down, fold it up and put it in your wallet. Hopefully you’ll never have to use it.

Listen to The Good Life Project podcast: On Awe, Positive Actions, Anxiety and Depression

Read the full study, Upregulating the positive affect system in anxiety and depression: Outcomes of a positive activity intervention

Watch the Ted Talk, The New Era of Positive Psychology:

Two Approaches to Scanxiety

Ugh! Getting scans is a necessary evil along the road of cancer. It is my opinion, terms like scanxiety should be clinical diagnoses where it’s affected should be prescribed copious amounts of sleep aids, anti-anxiety meds and painkillers. It is real and it is no joke. I once asked a more seasoned survivor, “Does it ever get easier?” They just laughed, then immediately stopped and with the straightest, most serious face, said, “No. No, it does not.” And I’m here to attest that three years in, it has not gotten easier, but I have learned how to manage the anxiety.

Scan Week 2014
Ugh! My scan is on Friday. I clear entire schedule this week, so I can worry in solitude. I don’t want to tell anyone this is the week because they’ll spend Friday sending me texts like, “Thinking of you” and I won’t know how to respond because I know I have cancer and I know it’s everywhere. In fact, why don’t we just skip the scan, since I know my doctor’s going to tell me there’s nothing more to be done. I spent the rest of the day eating McDonalds, in bed, watching an entire season of “The Real Housewives of New York”. Waking up on Tuesday, I decide to treat myself with a shopping trip. While shopping, I have thoughts along the vein of, “Why are you even buying clothes anymore since you’ll be dead in a few months anyway. It’s a waste of money.” I leave the mall, having bought nothing. I go home and take a nap. Wednesday, I plan my funeral complete with instructions, playlists and who should be alerted. Thursday, I start a shared Google docs folder with all the instructions for home since I know when I die in a couple days it will be super important for my husband to know that trash day is Monday and not to forget to vacuum under the bookshelf because that’s where cat hair hides. Friday, In the shower, I tell myself, “I don’t even care if I have cancer”. I drive to the hospital, get undressed, jump in the MRI machine. It’s taking longer than normal. I picture at least ten doctors in a room with worried faces where they’re saying things like, “She’s a goner.” When the MRI concludes, I notice the technician won’t look me in the eye. Yup, confirmed, I should get my affairs in order. Whatever, I don’t even care if I have cancer anyway. I stop at Taco Bell. I’m starving thanks to the no food for 6 hours rule. I cry the whole way home as I stuff tacos in my mouth. I didn’t protest when my oncologist scheduled this test on Friday, which means I get to continue post-traumatic scan anxiety throughout the weekend, ruining both my weekend and everyone who’s around me. By the time my doctor’s appointment occurs the following Thursday, I’m back to, “I don’t care if I have cancer.” My oncologist comes in and wants to small talk. Make a note that should there be a next time, I will not even say hello and tell her to cut to the chase and tell me how long I have.

Scan Week 2017
Ugh! My scan is on Friday. Resist the urge to cancel all your plans. In fact, do the opposite. Look at your calendar and make sure you have something fun planned every single day. I schedule lunch time yoga Monday thru Thursday. I go for a walk every morning. Knowing it’s going to be beautiful on Tuesday, I call a friend and ask if she’s free to meet and color at the park, which is something we talked about months ago. She is and we enjoy a few hours chatting and coloring. Wednesday, I go to Target and buy a small gift for a friend who just accomplished a major goal. I write her a nice note and put the gift in the mail. Thursday, I clean and organize the garage. “Idle handles are the devil’s workshop.” Friday rolls around and I did not sleep good. My MRI isn’t until 10:30, so I lay in bed watching Jimmy Fallon. A big indulgence, plus I can’t eat or drink anyway. At 9:00, I rise, shower and put on a nice outfit. I do my hair and make-up. Look good, feel good. I get to the hospital and they’re on-time. I jump into the MRI machine and notice how much my meditation practice has come in handy during the 35-minute study. I just lay there and focus on my breath. When I exit the room, my husband’s in the waiting room. We go have a lunch. I don’t get McDonalds. We return to the waiting room until the nurse calls us back. I’ve since learned I can just tell my oncologist I don’t want to wait the weekend. If she schedules my scan on Friday, I want my results Friday. Without protest, she obliges.

So, the lesson in these two stories is….if you suffer from scanxiety, having a plan for the days leading up to your scan is absolutely critical. Be sure to develop this plan before scanxiety starts. Write a list of things that make you happy and are fun. Don’t hide. Call a friend – that’s what they’re for and I know they’d love to be a part of your scanxiety reduction plan. Communicate with your doctor and make sure they know you don’t want to wait. Implementing these tactics hasn’t made my scanxiety disappear, it’s just made me get through the week with less torture.

In Cancer, Choose Magic

87WSyMSm

As featured on curetoday.com

As I drove home after a long day of yoga teacher training with the windows down and the sunroof open, I passed a lake. Behind the lake was one of the most glorious Michigan summer sunsets. In my previous life, I would have kept driving. Instead, I made an illegal left turn into a parking lot, got out of my car and sat on the grass at the water’s edge. Maybe it was too much yoga, but I was feeling so grateful that for the moment, my health, my life and everyone and everything in it. Life was pretty darn magical in that moment.

And then, I almost let three little dots take it all away.

It was just two weeks after the post-yoga, magical sunset when I found myself at the hospital for my routine bloodwork, MRI and CT scan. All survivors know the time between these exams and the day of results can be tortuous. It’s as if time stands still and thoughts of imminent mortality are mixed with the contrast fluid that technicians pump through your body.

Two of these dots are in my lungs, an area that was never scanned before, but my specialist suggested we image them just to be thorough. My local oncologist said, “In a normal person, I would think nothing of them.” Gee, thanks. She explained that she was not too concerned, but we should check them again in a few months, since we’ve decided to be thorough and all.

But the other dot was on my liver and most definitely not there before. This one was more concerning, but the radiologist indicated it was not diagnostic for a recurrence since it didn’t look like typical cancer cells. It could be blood vessels, contrast fluid build-up, nothing or something. My doctor suggested that we wait a week for the blood tumor marker results, which have been one of the best historical indicators for me. Ugh, more tortuous waiting.

My feelings bounced from thunderstruck to anger to not caring for the rest of the day. When I woke up the following morning rested and clear-minded, I knew I had to make a choice. I could choose fear, stress and anxiety or I could choose magic.

I spent the next few days continuing to feel amazing and stronger than I have for years. I went to yoga. I reminded myself that worry is only harmful. I stayed present in the moment and told myself, “Right now, you’re great,” as much as I needed too. I meditated everyday. I ate well. I went to bed early. I enjoyed my life. I spent time with my husband. I played fetch with the dog. I surrounded myself with Tiggers. Basically, I chose magic. Finally it was the the day I knew the results would be ready on the patient portal. I logged in, closed my eyes, took a few breaths and opened them to see that the tumor marker blood results were normal. The next day, my doctor called to tell me the news I already knew. She suggested waiting three months and scanning again. I followed up with my specialist, who concurred with this and felt cautiously optimistic. While a recurrence is still a possibility, it’s always a possibility, and if that day comes, I’ve decided, I will choose magic.

img_1619
Read on www.curetoday.comIn Cancer, Chose Magic

Read all of my articles with Cure Today.