Coping with fear and anxiety

Feeling frightened and anxious can affect your everyday life. It can be hard to focus, or you may feel restless and irritable. Sometimes there can be physical symptoms, such as:

  • tiredness
  • a dry mouth
  • digestive problems
  • breathlessness.

There are lots of things that might help you cope with anxiety. You could talk about or write down your fears and worries. You can also help relieve anxiety by looking after yourself. This means eating well, being active and doing things you enjoy. But if it feels like you’re struggling to manage, your GP, nurse or counsellor can help you find ways to cope.

Some people experience panic attacks. This is an intense response to fear or stress. It causes physical symptoms such as:

  • a pounding heart
  • shaking
  • feeling sick.

Panic attacks can be overwhelming. But there are very effective ways to manage them with breathing exercises and visualisation techniques. Your GP or healthcare team can make sure you get the right help.

Dealing with change

Uncertainty can be one of the hardest feelings to deal with, and it might make you feel irritable, angry and frightened.

Feeling that we have some control over our lives gives us a sense of security and allows us to enjoy the things we do. It is natural to want to know what is likely to happen next, so that we can make plans for the future. But being diagnosed with cancer can take away that sense of security, and leave you feeling uncertain about what is ahead.

You may find that doctors can’t answer your questions fully, or that their answers sound vague. For example, it is often impossible for them to say for certain how effective a treatment will be. Doctors know roughly how many people will benefit from a treatment, but can’t predict the future for a particular person with certainty.

Many people find this uncertainty hard to cope with. We have some suggestions of things you can do to help you manage your feelings.

One day you feel great and full of energy, the next you’re bedridden and so fatigued you can barely walk a few steps.



Feeling frightened and anxious is a natural reaction to an uncertain situation. But if it affects your ability to cope with day-to-day life, help may be needed. Symptoms of anxiety may include:

  • not being able to concentrate
  • irritability
  • being easily distracted
  • restlessness
  • a constant feeling of dread.

Anxiety may also have the following physical symptoms:

  • tense muscles
  • breathlessness
  • dizziness
  • sweating
  • a dry mouth
  • being unable to sleep
  • tiredness
  • digestive problems.

Anxiety is how your body reacts when you feel you are in danger. This is called the ‘fight or flight’ response. Your body is preparing you to either fight something seen as a threat or to flee from the danger.

Reassurance from other people that ‘everything will be alright’ can sometimes make the anxiety worse. You may feel that they do not take your concerns seriously, or that they are struggling to accept your illness.

We have more information about how your feelings can affect you physically.

Tips for managing anxiety

To help you cope with feelings of anxiety, you may find the following tips helpful:

  • Talk to someone who can listen objectively. This may be your doctor, nurse, or a partner, a family member, a friend or a professional counsellor. You may also want to join a support group.
  • Breathe deeply. Focusing on breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth can help you to feel calmer.
  • Listen to music. Put on music you enjoy and close your eyes to feel calmer.
  • Do physical exercise. Even a short walk can help relieve anxiety.
  • Keep a diary. Working out what triggers your anxiety can help you manage those situations.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Avoid stimulants such as coffee, tobacco and alcohol.
  • Try a complementary therapy. Activities or treatments such as yoga, meditation, massage or reflexology may help you relax and manage your anxiety.

If you feel that your anxiety is getting worse, speak to your GP, your specialist nurse or a counsellor. They can help you look at how your anxiety is affecting you and find ways of coping with it. You may also find it helpful to contact Anxiety UK.

Many people who have anxiety may also have depression.

Hopes and fears

You might like to write down your hopes and fears. It might help you talk to people about what is frightening you. Even if you don’t want to share it, you may still find it useful.

You may find it helpful to use the 'hopes and fears' person-centred thinking tool, which was developed by cancer survivors for the Think About Your Life website. The website has examples, stories and support to help you use the tool. There is also space for you to think about the next steps you could take to manage your concerns.

I was absolutely terrified. I didn’t know much about cancer. I thought I was going to die.


Panic attacks

If you are very anxious then you may have a panic attack. A panic attack is an intense version of your body’s normal response to fear or stress. It can include:

  • a pounding heartbeat
  • sweating
  • feeling sick (nausea)
  • feeling faint
  • feeling unable to breathe
  • chest pains
  • shaky arms or legs.

How to handle a panic attack

When you are having a panic attack, try to:

  • stay where you are or pull over if you are driving
  • tell yourself it’s a panic attack and it will pass
  • breathe slowly and deeply
  • think about positive things, like a favourite place.

Can I control panic attacks?

Panic attacks can feel overwhelming, but there are ways to help control them. Talking therapies can help to manage panic attacks. If you are already seeing a counsellor, tell them you have had a panic attack so they can work out how to help you. There are also many self-help resources available. Your doctor can help you access these. We have more information on where you can get help.

Ensure your family and friends also know you have had a panic attack in case it happens again.

Other ways to manage panic attacks include breathing exercises and visualisation. We have more information about relaxation and visualisation.

I am having counselling and have found it helpful in terms of strategies to use when I feel panicky or anxious. You could ask your specialist nurse about this.


Back to Dealing with your emotions

Cancer and your feelings

There is no right way to feel after a cancer diagnosis. You are likely to feel many different emotions.

Feeling alone

People with cancer often feel lonely or isolated. There are ways to manage these feelings.

Coping with depression

Depression can be difficult to recognise, so try not to ignore your feelings. Help is always available.