Managing anxiety and other feelings

Coping with body changes can make you anxious but there are ways to manage this. Talking to family and close friends may help you to put things into perspective and feel less anxious. Information from health professionals may also help to reassure you.

You might find sharing your feelings with people going through a similar experience helpful. This could be through a support group or organisation, or an online forum. Writing down your feelings or setting goals to manage challenges can also be useful.

Other things that may help you to unwind include:

  • exercises to relax your breathing or your body
  • cutting down caffeine and alcohol
  • getting enough sleep
  • taking regular physical activity
  • using imagery (visualisation) meditation or mindfulness
  • complementary therapies such as massage or aromatherapy.

If your body image concerns become overwhelming, it’s important to get help. Your doctor can refer you to a counsellor or psychological therapist. They can help you to understand your feelings better and find ways of coping with them.

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Talking to other people

Anxiety is common when you are dealing with body changes. Try to talk to people you trust and who will listen to you share how you feel. This may be family or friends, or your doctor, nurse or other health professional.

Putting your concerns into words can help you make more sense of your situation and put things in perspective. You may feel less anxious and more in control.

If people don’t allow you to talk but try to over-reassure you, or tell you not to worry, it can be unhelpful or make you more anxious. Try to explain to them that what you need is someone who will just listen.

Health professionals can give you information and practical advice. They can help you look at ways to reduce your anxiety. Tell them if your anxiety is difficult to manage or gets worse. They can refer you to a counsellor or psychologist, and prescribe medicines to help.

You could also talk to someone from a support group, an online forum or a support organisation. These give you a chance to talk to other people facing similar challenges.

Problem solving

It can be useful to think ahead of ways to solve a problem or to handle difficult situations. For example, preparing an answer for awkward questions such as, ‘What happened to you?’ can help.

Setting yourself step-by-step goals can help you achieve simple things, such as meeting up with a friend. This means you’re taking control of your situation.

Writing things down

It can also help to write about how you feel in a journal or diary. For example, you may find it helpful to use the hopes and fears tool below. There’s space for you to think about the next steps you could take to help you manage your concerns.

Support organisations

There are different resources that give advice on managing anxiety. The NHS has content on stress and anxiety, and there is information on Anxiety UK’s website. They also have DVDs, CDs and podcasts to help guide you at home.

What you can do

Some of the following suggestions may help you feel less anxious:

  • Practise exercises that involve learning to relax your breathing or your body. Ask your GP about these – they may be able to refer you to a healthcare professional who can show you these techniques.
  • Cut down on the amount of caffeine and alcohol you drink.
  • Do regular physical activity to reduce stress and anxiety. Activities like yoga can reduce stress.
  • Get enough sleep. Get advice from your GP if you have difficulty sleeping.
  • Using imagery (visualisation) to have a picture in your mind of a place and time you felt relaxed and happy. Concentrating on how you felt at that time may help you feel less anxious.
  • Some people use meditation or mindfulness to help calm their mind and help them focus.
  • Some people use complementary therapies to help them relax, such as massage, aromatherapy, reflexology or acupuncture.

Relaxed breathing exercises

You can do these lying down, sitting in a chair or standing up. To begin with, try to practise them regularly when you aren’t anxious.

Your breathing should be slow and gentle but not deep, as this can make you light-headed.

Step 1 – Your shoulders, head and neck should be relaxed, and supported if you’re sitting or lying down.

Step 2 – Place one hand on your chest and the other just below your ribcage.

Step 3 – Slowly and gently breathe in through your nose and feel your stomach move out.

Step 4 – After a full breath, pause for a moment then slowly and gently breathe out through your mouth.

Try doing this for five minutes, three times a day for a few weeks.

Facing your fears

When you have hair loss, it is common to avoid situations that make you feel anxious.

Here is an example of how facing your fears can sometimes reduce anxiety and help you feel more confident:

Anita’s hair was growing back after treatment. She planned to meet a friend for lunch, but she was anxious about going out for the first time without her wig. She chose a quiet hotel and agreed to meet her friend in the reception area.

Anita did not know that there was a big event at the hotel that day, and that people she knew would be there. When she realised, her first reaction was to leave straight away. But she did not want to let her friend down, so she stayed and waited anxiously. Her anxiety quickly passed as people she knew came up to her and were clearly happy to see her. They did not seem to notice her hair, and people she did not know just carried on as usual.

Body image after treatment

Hear Richard, Peter, Heather and Stacey talk about how they felt about their bodies after cancer treatment, and how they rebuilt their confidence.

About our cancer information videos

Body image after treatment

Hear Richard, Peter, Heather and Stacey talk about how they felt about their bodies after cancer treatment, and how they rebuilt their confidence.

About our cancer information videos

When you may need help

If your body image concerns are difficult to cope with, talk to your doctor or nurse. Let them know if you feel anxious or upset a lot of the time, or think you may be depressed. These are all normal reactions, but if they don’t improve or are overwhelming, it’s important to get help.

You may need help if you:

  • find it hard to look at yourself after treatment
  • avoid socialising because of body changes
  • feel very unhappy with your appearance or spend a lot of time on ‘fixing’ your appearance
  • have difficulties in your relationship with your partner.

Your doctor can refer you to a counsellor or psychological therapist. They usually refer you for a type of ‘talking therapy’ that can help you understand your feelings better and learn new ways of managing your problems. They may also prescribe medicines to help.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

CBT is a talking therapy that is helpful for people with body image concerns. The aim is to help you change your thinking so you can cope more positively when you feel anxious, helpless or depressed. A psychologist will talk to you about the number of sessions you need and set goals with you. CBT and other forms of therapy are available on the NHS.

There are also online CBT services approved by the NHS that you can do yourself.

Check the online NHS information service in your local area to see what services are available.

Back to Cancer and body image

Relationships, intimacy and sex

Cancer and its treatments can affect your sex life and relationships. Talking openly and taking the time to get used to possible body changes can help.

Helping you take control

Setting realistic goals, dealing with problems in a structured way and challenging unhelpful thinking can help you take control.

Changing the way you think

Being aware of your thoughts may help you notice unhelpful thinking patterns. It can then allow you to challenge these.