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I’ve lost family to cancer and fear I’m next. How do I stop worrying? Add to ...

The question: I recently have had a string of deaths in the family, all from cancer. Now I stress out about every little bump on my body. I’ve been to the doctors, who say I’m fine, but I’m still anxious all the time. What can I do to not feel crazy?

The answer: My sincere condolences on the deaths in your family. I’ve had multiple family members deal with cancer diagnoses, some at a very young age, and can personally appreciate the significant emotional toll it takes on everyone, including close family and friends.

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To be feeling stressed and worried about your health is very normal given the circumstances. Our emotions – positive and negative – all serve a purpose. They provide us with validation about things that are important to us, they motivate us toward action, and they communicate things to people around us.

In your case, your anxiety is providing your brain and body a few messages: First, cancer is a reality that could affect anyone. And secondly, there is value in being attentive to your health, and obtaining a professional opinion on risks or concerns you may have.

Your worry is also helping to communicate to your loved ones – from whom you may need support – that you are feeling sad about those you’ve lost and that you have concerns about your own health and possible mortality.

In all cases, there is a shelf life on the value our worry has. Worry (or any other negative emotion) is helpful insofar as it serves a useful function.

It sounds as though you are recognizing that you are past a stage that is helpful. You have sought medical advice, which I will assume has included a comprehensive medical checkup from a physician you trust, and had your concerns allayed.

To be in a state where you are overly stressing or ruminating about any minor change or bump even when you have been told there is nothing to be concerned about is clearly not serving a useful role, and it is impacting your quality of life.

Once worry starts, it can easily grow exponentially simply being fed by our (often unrealistic) thoughts. So, it’s important to actively work on challenging your thoughts and making them more realistic. Ask yourself (and write down) the answers to the following key questions when you find yourself getting caught in a state of worry:

  • What is the objective evidence I have for my worry?
  • What evidence do I have that does not support my worry?
  • What is the worst thing I am fearing?
  • How likely (percentage-wise) is it that my worst fear will become a reality?
  • What is an alternative explanation for what I am thinking?
  • Given the above, what is the most likely outcome?
  • What useful function is my worry serving right now?

I’ve co-authored a book that you can download for free titled Positive Coping with Health Conditions. It offers useful, evidence-based chapters on relaxation strategies, managing worry, and managing depressive thinking (which can often be a side effect of worry). These chapters offer cognitive and behavioural strategies that have been proven to reduce worry.

Another great book is Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think, by Drs. Dennis Greenberger and Christine Padesky.

Dr. Joti Samra, R.Psych., is a clinical psychologist and organizational & media consultant. She is the host of OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network’s Million Dollar Neighbourhood and is the psychological consultant to CITY-TV’s The Bachelor Canada. Her website is www.drjotisamra.com and she can be followed @drjotisamra .

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail’s Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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