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.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
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.
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.
5. 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.
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.