Advice from Rob: How to overcome anxiety during a hospital stay

October 22, 2014 | by rdarakjian

Cancer survivor Rob Darakjian Cancer survivor Rob Darakjian shares tips on how to overcome anxiety and depression while being treated for cancer.

Rob Darakjian was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at just 19 years old. He began chemotherapy and was in and out of the hospital for four months. After his fourth round of treatment, he received a bone marrow transplantation from an anonymous donor. Today, he's cancer free.

In his first post, he shared his story and explained what NOT to do when you're depressed and have cancer. In his second post, he explained what cancer patients SHOULD do if they're depressed. Here, he offers seven tips on how patients can confront cancer and anxiety.

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How to ease anxiety: 

Listen, watch: I find this technique to be particularly helpful when I’m experiencing anxiety at almost any level. I call it “listen, watch” because that’s what I do: I try and place myself in the present moment by paying attention to what I can see and what I can hear. Try to pick up on everything you can hear, from your own breathing, to the faint sound of conversation somewhere outside. Then, after awhile turn to a different sense, say sight, and just look around your physical environment.

You’ll find that, as one thought about a specific object or sound leads to another thought, that your anxiety should lessen. I still practice this technique daily, as a way of not just reducing anxiety, but of fostering an appreciation for the world I get to inhabit. Further, I think it allows me to appreciate Beauty in ways I did not before I started doing it consciously. You could try using your other senses as well; sight and sound happen to be the most effective for me personally.

Breathing exercises: Another great way to take the edge off your anxiety: Breathe in through your nose, filling up your stomach (you’re technically breathing using your diaphragm) to a slow count of 4, hold your breath for a slow count of 3, and then exhale through your mouth to a slow count of 4. After you get past 10 or so breaths, try and begin to focus on the air as it enters and exits your body. (How many you do doesn’t matter – keep breathing slowly for as long as it takes to start feeling less anxious. Your heart rate should go down as well. It can be hard sometimes I know, but trust in it and it will work.)

Tapping the sternum: Take your middle or index finger of your dominant hand half an inch from the bottom of your sternum. (Your sternum is the bone where your ribs meet in the center of your body) While doing the breathing exercise recommended above, or any form of slow, meditative breathing, begin tapping your sternum with your finger to a steady beat. Keep tapping, and begin to center your attention into the center of your body – into the place where you’re tapping. Keep this up for as long at least a few minutes and you should experience some relief.

Break the day down: You don’t have to worry about that next surgery you’re having in a month, or how you’re going to survive a whole month or longer in the hospital. All you have to think about is whatever you have to do to get through today. Get yourself through the day and claim your rightful victory. And if you’re anxious about all the things you’re going to have to go through today, break the day down to the next hour, the next minute, or even the next moment. You can cross that bridge that you’re currently worrying about when you come to it, so there’s no reason to worry about it now.

Challenge anxious thoughts: When your mind starts to race, it can feel like you’re losing it and this, in turn, can create a lot of anxiety. Ask yourself, is there any reason why I should be thinking these things?

  • If you're obsessing over one thought in particular, kind of like having a song stuck in your head, ask yourself: "OK, I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, but is it really productive or helpful in any way to keep thinking this same thing?"
  • If you’re thoughts scare or upset you, remind yourself: “It’s just a thought.” What pops into your head, what you “think” does not define who you are. Your thoughts can begin to seem real, but again, remind yourself that it’s just a thought, and in a short time you’ll have another thought which probably won’t be as “crazy” or upsetting.
  • Write out your anxious thoughts down on paper and exaggerate them as much as you can. Make that scary thought as scary as possible by using every descriptive word you can think of . Then write out why that thought is irrational and try to laugh at how ridiculous it is.
Bring it on: When you’re still feeling anxious for long periods of time despite your best efforts to combat it, I recommend taking a “bring it on” attitude to your anxiety. Simply let yourself feel anxious, and acknowledge that it’s not going away right now. This is especially useful for getting on with your day. Courage is acting in the face of fear and anxiety. Taking a “bring it on” attitude requires courage. If you’re experiencing prolonged anxiety it’s not going to go away entirely, no matter what you do. That’s when you tell yourself, “Fine, I’m feeling anxious but because this feeling isn’t going to go away for a while, I might as well continue on with my day."

It can be hard, but refusing to let anxiety gain control over your daily life is essential to managing your anxiety over the long term. Shed the victim mentality and accept how you feel despite how agonizing or uncomfortable it can be. Getting angry “I’m sick of feeling this way!” (but not to the point of rage) can help motivate you to keep going despite how anxious you feel.

Remember: This too shall pass: Like everything else in life, your anxious thoughts and feelings will pass. Repeat this to yourself, and remember a time in your life when you didn’t feel helpless and fragile. Remember and focus on a particularly happy moment in your past. You will feel that way again, and possibly even better.  Hold on. To quote Samuel Beckett, “I can’t go on. I will go on.”

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Learn more about City of Hope's treatment of adolescents and young adults by visiting our website or by reading this interview with pediatric oncologist Julie Wolfson.

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