Anxiety and brain tumours
Anxiety is a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, and is often a response to challenging or threatening events and scenarios – for example an upcoming job interview.
Often these feelings are short-term, but for ongoing events and situations, such as being diagnosed with a brain tumour and undergoing treatment, these feelings may persist. Anxiety can be mild or severe, constant or intermittent, for example, when waiting for the results of a scan.
It’s important to realise that feeling anxious is a normal, if unpleasant, part of life and whatever your level of anxiety, you’re not alone. Many people with brain tumours will feel anxious at some point and there’s a lot of support available.
While feeling anxious is completely natural, if anxiety starts to impact your daily life, it could be indicative of an anxiety disorder. You should not feel reluctant to talk to your GP about anxiety if you’re worried about how it is affecting you.
If you are affected by a brain tumour and feel you cannot cope with your current situation, you can call our Support & Information Line.
If you need someone to talk to outside office hours, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123.
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What is anxiety?
We asked Dr Clare Jacobson, Specialist Clinical Psychologist at Guy’s Hospital about anxiety.
“Everyone will react a bit differently to news of a brain tumour, but there’s no right or wrong way – it’s about finding a helpful way,” says Clare.
“Often, after diagnosis, people go into action mode and focus on what they can do, like starting treatment. But after that, there’s an adjustment to living with the effects of the tumour and/or its treatment. That is often when the psychological challenges begin.
“We need to change society’s view that anxiety is something awful to get rid of. Without anxiety we wouldn’t have survived as cavemen.
“If our ancestors were confronted with a tiger, their fear response released adrenaline to give a burst of energy to fight or escape (the ‘fight or flight’ response), enabling survival.”
When this response is triggered, blood moves away from our digestive organs and head, causing symptoms such as ‘butterflies’, nausea or dizziness, and our hearts pump oxygen more quickly so we’re ready to attack or run.
But this is less helpful when we can’t solve the problem by fighting or fleeing – we can’t fight medication or run from the scanner.
Without a burst of energy the adrenaline stays in our system, causing the unpleasant sensations we associate with anxiety, such as rapid breathing, pounding heart, shaking, sweating and a general sense of ‘impending doom.’
Clare also points out that the location of a brain tumour could itself cause anxiety, if it’s in a part of the brain that regulates emotions and arousal. “In this case it’s important to understand that anxiety can just be meaningless physical sensations,” she says.
“You experience similar sensations if you drink too much coffee or you’re out of breath from exercising, but you interpret them within those frameworks, so they don’t activate ‘worry thoughts’ as a result.”
When should you seek help?
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (fifth edition) classifies anxiety as a set of symptoms experienced for at least two weeks, impairing your functioning in some way – for example, your ability to work, study or manage your house.
Clare says most people know when to seek help. “You’re the expert on how much distress you’re in. You’ll know when it’s impacting enough on your quality of life to be a significant problem,” she says.
“Anxiety can impact your mood, sleep, appetite, relationships, libido – almost every aspect of life. On top of that, people often judge themselves negatively for experiencing anxiety, and that can activate low mood. These are signs to notice if you think someone may be experiencing anxiety.”
To get help, Clare suggests contacting your GP or searching online for Talking Therapies services in your area.
Can you learn to live with anxiety?
You may have to accept that there will be times you’ll feel anxious, such as waiting for scan results (known as ‘scanxiety’).
Clare advises, “Don’t let the presence of anxiety itself make you believe there must be something wrong. Try to accept anxiety as part of life. Allow it into the room and accept that it’ll take up space.
Sometimes it’ll feel huge and overwhelming and that’s okay – it can’t stay that big forever. At other times it’ll shrink down to the size of a peanut. You’re in a relationship with anxiety, it’s not a part of you.
Think of it as the uninvited party guest who you have to tolerate and try out different ways of relating to.”
What Causes Anxiety?
Clare Jacobson a specialist clinical psychologist at Guy’s Hospital, discusses what anxiety is and what can cause it.
How do I know if what I’m feeling is anxiety?
There are many symptoms of anxiety and not everybody will experience the in the same way. Some people have only 1 or 2, while others have many more or experience individual symptoms more severely.
The following are common physical symptoms of anxiety:
- Your heart beats very fast and/or irregularly
- You breathe very fast
- You feel dizzy
- You sweat more than normal
- Your stomach churns or feels upset
- Your mouth feels dry
- You can’t eat
- Your muscles get tense or feel weak
- You have trouble sleeping
- You get headaches.
The following are some of the common emotional symptoms of anxiety:
- You’re irritable
- You feel like you want to run away from the situation
- You find it hard to concentrate on anything else
- You feel constantly on edge or alert to everything around you.
Tips from our community
“My partner was given anti-anxiety medication by the GP for when they’re feeling really anxious. It usually helps them!”
“Try to remind yourself the scary, anxious thoughts you’re having aren’t facts. It’s just your brain going to the worst case scenario. Try to focus on what you know for certain.”
“I find the ‘Calm’ app helps me when I’m anxious at night and can’t sleep.”
“I try to focus on what I can control and to let go of the things I can’t. It’s a little bit of ‘fake it until you make it’ behaviour, but I honestly don’t stress about a lot of unnecessary things anymore.”
Join one of our our Online Support Communities for more tips about coping with a brain tumour diagnosis, from people who truly understand what you’re going through.
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