Managing Scan-Related Anxiety

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Even if you understand that the benefits of a scan are likely to far outweigh the risks, it is not uncommon to find yourself nervous and worried when you are scheduled for an imaging test.

This may be the case whether you have no symptoms and are undergoing routine screening, if you are receiving treatment and your doctors are checking your progress or if you are having a scan after treatment to make sure cancer has not returned. In fact, so many people feel trepidation over scans that this particular unease has even picked up a nickname: scanxiety.

If you have experienced nervous episodes and heightened fears in anticipation of a scan, you are not alone. In fact, anxiety in the face of the unknown is a very normal human response. And it is the unknown that we are really afraid of when it comes to scans. In particular, it’s the fear that the “unknown” is news we would rather not hear—that a disease is developing or has returned or that treatment is not working as well as hoped.

“When it comes to scans, there are a lot of unknowns and what-ifs,” explains Mike Uhl, MA, MDiv, LMFT, Mind-Body Therapist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Zion, Illinois. “Anxiety is the brain going too fast,” he says of the tendency to jump from one scenario to the other when faced with fear.

Uhl explains that patient anxiety is generally over risks of the procedure itself (such as complications from radiation or dyes), claustrophobia during MRI and the possibility that the test will find cancer or show that treatment is not working. This latter concern, Uhl says, is “fear of the unknown,” which he describes as a generally protective response. “It becomes a problem, however, when it affects behavior in a negative way.”

Too much anxiety can lead to overall unease and incidents such as panic attacks, mood swings, trouble eating, fast breathing, elevated heart rate and feeling like you are not yourself. It can be very difficult to overcome such unsettled feelings. “Simply telling yourself to relax isn’t likely to help,” Uhl explains. “Your entire system is involved in this anxiety response.

“The only way to slow the brain down is by controlling the body, or the decelerator,” Uhl continues. Fortunately, there are effective mind-body techniques that can first quiet the body and then quiet the mind when scanxiety takes hold.

Mind-body techniques teach people with scanxiety the following steps:

  • Calm the body. Try deep belly breathing (such as in yoga): inhale slowly through the nose and exhale through the mouth. Or try progressive muscle relaxation: Hold muscles (tense) for about 10 seconds, then release.
  • Choose your thoughts. Ask yourself, What’s really true? Is this a healthy thought?
  • Choose your behaviors. Now that you have chosen your thoughts, how will you behave differently? Choose to bring a friend along to scans to ease anxiety and other behaviors that calm and comfort you.

“Mind-body medicine is whole-person care,” says Uhl. “We treat the body as well as thoughts, feelings and relationships.” He also suggests activities like meditation and guided imagery to help manage anxiety about scans and make sure you are not missing these valuable tests.

In addition to mind-body techniques to ease anxiety, you may also take comfort in knowing that your care team has made your positive experience their priority. For example, Chris Patterson, lead MRI technologist at CTCA® in Zion, explains that patients are cared for on a personal level from the moment they arrive for their appointment. “We meet patients at the front desk,” he explains, “answer all questions, explain the MRI process in detail, take all safety measures and discuss any fear about results.” He says that this approach goes a long way in reducing anxiety.

In addition to individual attention, Patterson explains that he and his colleagues in the MRI Department make every effort to keep patients comfortable. For example, you can wear a soft pillow over your eyes so you don’t see the inside of the machine, which can make some people feel claustrophobic. The MRI “tube” is also outfitted with cushions and warm blankets, and the particular machine CTCA uses is wider to further reduce any sense of claustrophobia.