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Gain Control of Your Anxiety and Depression

by Maria Rueda-Lara, MD

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Mind-body techniques like meditation teach you how to use the power of your thoughts and emotions to influence your physical and mental health.

A cancer diagnosis can cause enormous anxiety, sadness, and uncertainty about the future. These feelings are normal up to a certain point; however, when sadness and anxiety take hold and don’t go away, it can lead to depression or an anxiety disorder that requires professional help.

Symptoms of depression include sadness, irritability, inability to enjoy things you once enjoyed, constant worry, dwelling on negative thoughts, and feelings of hopelessness, guilt, or worthlessness. Physical symptoms may include decreased energy, problems sleeping, difficulty concentrating or making decisions, and changes in weight or appetite.

If you’re having some or all of these symptoms, the first step is to talk to your doctor, who can determine if your symptoms are caused by a medical condition. Certain medications, chemotherapies, and medical conditions, such as thyroid disease, can cause depressive symptoms.

If your doctor finds that your symptoms of depression or anxiety aren’t being caused by a medical condition, the next step is to undergo a psychological evaluation. Then, if you’re diagnosed with depression or an anxiety disorder, you can begin to seek treatment. The most common treatments for depression and anxiety disorders are psychotherapy, mind-body techniques, and medication.

Psychotherapy, or “talk therapy,” teaches you how to deal with stress and unhealthy thoughts or behaviors.

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Dr. Maria Rueda-Lara

Psychotherapy, or “talk therapy,” teaches you how to deal with stress and unhealthy thoughts or behaviors. Some of the different types of therapies available include cognitive behavioral therapy, interpersonal psychotherapy, supportive psychotherapy, and existential psychotherapy.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is based on the idea that your thoughts can affect your feelings and behaviors. It aims to change your thinking to be more adaptive and healthy.
Interpersonal psychotherapy is based on the belief that improving communication patterns and the way you relate to others can effectively treat depression.
Supportive psychotherapy works by strengthening your healthy thoughts and behaviors to help treat internal conflicts that produce anxiety or depressive symptoms.
Existential psychotherapy operates on the belief that internal conflicts are caused by your confrontation and realization of your human condition and its limitations.

Different types of therapy settings are also available to suit your preferences and comfort level. If you’re a person who likes to participate in groups and learn from others, you may want to try group therapy. If you’re a private person who feels more comfortable in a one-on-one setting, individual therapy may better fit your needs.

Mind-body techniques might be helpful if you’re looking for something beyond talk therapy. These techniques teach you how to use the power of your thoughts and emotions to influence your physical and mental health. This may help you relieve distress and other side effects of cancer, such as nausea, problems sleeping, and difficulty relaxing. Some of these techniques include meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, deep breathing, and mindfulness.

Meditation is a practice by which you train your mind to reach a state of relaxation and serenity using deep breathing.
Progressive muscle relaxation teaches you to tense and relax your muscles until your body feels relaxed.
Guided imagery is a technique by which you create a picture in your mind that you associate with feeling well and relaxed and use it to help distract yourself from an unpleasant situation or thought.

Medication may be necessary when talk therapy and mind-body techniques are not enough to treat symptoms of distress, depression, and anxiety. Medications are available to treat insomnia, anxiety, depression, and side effects like fatigue, hot flashes, and pain.

Some people have fears about taking medications to treat mood and anxiety disorders. These fears can be related to the stigma of taking medications for psychological symptoms. Other fears are due to the misconception of becoming addicted to the medications, or the interactions these medications might have with a particular cancer treatment. It’s important to discuss these fears with your physician or counselor, who can address your fears and help ease them.

Medications are intended to help you cope more effectively with what you’re going through. Depression and anxiety can distort how we perceive our problems and can often cloud our judgment, making reality seem harsher than it actually is. When doctors prescribe a medication, their goal is not to alter your personality or make you feel like a “zombie” but rather to help you feel better and get back to feeling like yourself.

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Dr. Maria Rueda-Lara is an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center in Miami, FL.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2013.