Scan Anxiety (or ‘Scanxiety’): 5 Approaches to Coping

Irritability, sweaty palms, increased heart rate, and nausea are common symptoms many patients experience when preparing for an upcoming exam. This feeling of apprehension and discomfort is called scanxiety, which aptly refers to the anxiety or worry patients often feel before undergoing a scan or receiving the results of an examination.

“Anxiety often comes when people have to face things they can’t control,” says Karen Fasciano, PsyD, senior psychologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and director of the Young Adult Program. “For someone who has — or has had — cancer, a common fear is that their body will betray them, or that cancer will eventually overcome them.”

The reason this fear is so common among patients, and even caregivers, is that many have already dealt with negative results from scans, Fasciano adds. This memory can fuel feelings of uncertainty and intensify fear and anxiety already present: that the next exam will bring about another upsetting or painful result.

For patients and caregivers experiencing scanxiety, Fasciano advises people to try different coping approaches until they find one that works for them, noting there isn’t a universal “right way” to deal with it.

Stay in the present

An upcoming exam can often lead patients to envision scenarios of what could happen, or what their results might indicate. They may fear they’ve run out of treatment options, or perhaps think back to difficult or painful times, dreading the idea of repeating them.

By trying to predict the future, Fasciano says patients can become fixated on all of the negative possibilities, so she advocates for patients to try to live in the present. Instead of getting attached to the idea of what could happen, take note of the world around you and be fully engaged in the activity you’re participating in—whether it be a conversation with a loved one or a walk around your neighborhood.

Know yourself

Everyone has a different response to stress, and nobody knows your body quite like you. You might be irritable or experience insomnia before an exam, or you may withdraw from family and friends. Rather than trying to fight your body and mind’s reaction, Fasciano encourages patients to acknowledge and accept it.  

It’s important to take note of your response to anxiety. By recognizing trends, triggers, or an early onset of symptoms you can address your scanxiety early on, giving yourself enough time to try an effective coping mechanism.

Engage in distractions

Preventing scanxiety depends upon successfully decreasing your autonomic nervous system’s stress response, which, when fully engaged, may include bodily reactions like heavy breathing or an increased heart rate. One way to decrease this response is to distract yourself with a repetitive activity that requires your full focus.  

Whether it’s meditating, playing video games, or simply knitting, the goal is to take your focus off of your upcoming exam. For those looking to try meditation, Fasciano suggests using an app like Headspace. That way you’re not required to try and generate peace of mind on your own, which can be hard if your already feeling stressed or anxious.

Meditation can be a helpful practice for patients.

4. Find your mantra

Like meditation, adopting a positive mindset can help alleviate the worries of scanxiety. Fasciano recommends compiling a list of quotes from people in your support system to increase feelings of support. Having words of encouragement from those who care about you can help not only put things into perspective, but also provide comfort during a difficult time.

Listen to a podcast from Dana-Farber featuring the stories of two survivors and how they manage their scanxiety.

Recently, Fasciano says she’s seen a rise in homemade inspirational videos. Patients create short videos in a variety of ways and formats from the quotes they’ve collected and watch them right before their exam.

Know that it’s OK to worry

While it might seem counterproductive, setting aside a limited amount of time to worry can be helpful. Fasciano explains that doing so allows patients and caregivers to validate their concerns and express them in a healthy way, whether that’s writing down notes in a journal or talking with someone they trust.

Journaling can help you express your concerns in a healthy way.

During this set time, she encourages patients to not only think about the potential outcomes—including the positive ones—but also create an action plan detailing how they will address each scenario.

It’s important to limit these scheduled sessions to just 10 to 15 minutes. Even the act of setting this time limit can help control scanxiety by allowing you to dictate how much time it will take up during your day.

4 thoughts on “Scan Anxiety (or ‘Scanxiety’): 5 Approaches to Coping”

  1. I am retired, but having been a teacher for over 40 years I was used to students with similar anxiety over a different kind of exam. One of my teachers told me that the excited tension came from adrenaline – the fight or flight hormone – an we could freeze like a deer in the headlights or use it to run our minds at hyper-speed. It worked for me and many students. Now, I apply the same idea before any medical exams and use that nervous energy to learn something new. That nervous energy helps me focus and lets me put the upcomming exam out of my mind.

  2. I’ve passed this technique from Dr. Andrew Weil to many. Give it a try.

    The 4-7-8 (or Relaxing Breath) Exercise

    Although you can do the exercise in any position, sit with your back straight while learning the exercise. Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise. You will be exhaling through your mouth around your tongue; try pursing your lips slightly if this seems awkward.

    Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
    Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
    Hold your breath for a count of seven.
    Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
    This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
    Note that with this breathing technique, you always inhale quietly through your nose and exhale audibly through your mouth. The tip of your tongue stays in position the whole time. Exhalation takes twice as long as inhalation. The absolute time you spend on each phase is not important; the ratio of 4:7:8 is important. If you have trouble holding your breath, speed the exercise up but keep to the ratio of 4:7:8 for the three phases. With practice you can slow it all down and get used to inhaling and exhaling more and more deeply.

    This breathing exercise is a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system. Unlike tranquilizing drugs, which are often effective when you first take them but then lose their power over time, this exercise is subtle when you first try it, but gains in power with repetition and practice. Do it at least twice a day. You cannot do it too frequently. Do not do more than four breaths at one time for the first month of practice. Later, if you wish, you can extend it to eight breaths. If you feel a little lightheaded when you first breathe this way, do not be concerned; it will pass.

  3. This article is extremely helpful for me. Very practical with ideas for things that I can apply myself. Thank you for writing it. As you say it’s a feeling of not having control that brings about my panic so choosing to control my anxiety like this is very helpful. I was diagnosed almost 9 years ago and have suffered many bouts of PTSD, but as time goes by I find myself settling down. I also use prayer to my God as the most helpful tool in my tool belt. I pray for my anxiety to be relieved and for inner peace and my Lord provides it to me. Praise God

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