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How to ease worry when waiting for medical test results
Screenings, doctor appointments and medical tests are an unavoidable part of life, and they're necessary to stay healthy. So if you happen to be someone who finds waiting for results particularly difficult, what can you do?
That sinking feeling of anxiety is something many of us have experienced when waiting for the results of a medical test. Whether it's cervical screening or the results of another type of examination, it is out of our hands - but that doesn't stop the worry from eating away at us, as we imagine the worst case scenario coming true.
Firstly, it's important to recognise that it's normal to feel anxious before test results are revealed.
"Depending on the nature of the tests and the implications of positive results, the results can be potentially life-changing," says Dr Ian Nnatu, consultant psychiatrist at Priory Hospital North London.
However, whether you struggle with waiting periods can also depend on your personality.
"Naturally, some people tend to worry more than others depending on their outlook and degree of resilience," says Nnatu. "Do you see the glass as half full or half empty? There is a spectrum of how people respond to such uncertainty about their health, ranging from normal self-limiting worry to excessive, all-consuming worry which affects sleep, daily life and functioning."
Dani Bell, specialist advisor for treatment and recovery at Macmillan Cancer Support, adds: "Waiting for test results can be a worrying time. Sometimes people will have a test and get results on the same day; for other tests, they may have to wait to get results from their doctor. Either way, the not knowing, or thinking the worst, can understandably cause increased levels of anxiety."
If you already struggle with an anxiety disorder, waiting for the results of a screening or test can be particularly difficult.
"I struggle with anxiety anyway and I always feel worried when I'm waiting to find out the results from a medical screening like cervical screening," says Jo*, 29. "I know deep down that I'll be OK and that I can address issues if they do come up - and I also know that going for screenings is a positive thing - but I always convince myself something really bad is going to happen.
"Even when I booked a GP appointment to get a mole checked out, I managed to convince myself that I definitely had skin cancer. I find my health anxiety gets worse as I get older, and it doesn't help that I read about horrible things happening to other people, on the news or on adverts on the TV."
Why do we assume the worst?
Waiting for results can be a stressful time and you may find yourself mentally preparing for bad news, even if you know - deep down - that this is unlikely to happen. So why do we do this?
According to Nnatu, our tendency to assume the worst can depend on several factors.
"The type of investigation or test that has been performed and the implications of a positive result, for instance," he explains. "Your attitude to uncertainty and being out of control is also an important factor in addition to how you approach stress and pressure in general."
What we read and watch on the news, online and on social media can have an impact, too. If we see a friend struggling with a health problem, for example, we might be more inclined to worry about our own health.
"It is fairly commonplace for people to search the internet and forums, seeking answers, and whilst this has its place, this can make matters worse - for instance, if you frequently read unmoderated sites," Nnatu adds.
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What can you do to help ease the anxiety of waiting?
Everyone gets anxious from time to time, particularly if we are worried about our own health and well-being. However, there are steps you can take to help ease the worry.
See it as problem-solving
If you're concerned about going for a medical screening and waiting for the results, such as cervical screening, try to see the process in a pragmatic way. If there is an issue, testing is the first step to addressing it.
"Try to frame this as a win-win situation and adopt a problem-solving approach to counter the tendency to worry," Nnatu says. "For instance, if the results are positive, would it not be preferable to know the results as soon as possible so that you can take action? And of course, if the results are negative, then that will be a huge relief."
Ask professionals for advice
"Seek as much information as you can from your GP or specialist before the tests," Nnatu says. "Avoid searching the internet unless these are recommended sites."
If you are unsure about what a cervical screening test entails, for example, you can always ask your GP or find information and support from charities such as Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust or the NHS website. Booking in for cervical screening with all the right information and facts can help put your mind at ease.
Organisations such as Anxiety UK and Mind offer advice and support for mental health issues such as anxiety too. If you find anxiety impacts your life in lots of ways, your GP will be able to advise the best course of action for you.
"If it feels like you're struggling to manage, your GP, nurse or counsellor can help you find ways to cope," Bell says.
"You don't have to deal with the feelings of anxiety on your own. Macmillan Cancer Support is right there with you and anyone in need of guidance or information can call our free dedicated support line, 0800 808 00 00 and speak to a nurse between 8 am-8 pm, seven days a week, or open up to our experts and other people affected by cancer on our online community."
Speak with friends and family
If you are anxious, bottling up your feelings can make you feel much worse. Speaking with trusted friends and family members can help you get things off your chest.
"Feelings of anxiety are natural and may not subside completely, but there are some things you can do to help you cope with these emotions, while you await your test results," Bell adds.
"For example, you may find it helpful to talk with your partner, your family or a close friend, or to write down your fears and worries."
Stick to your routine and keep busy
And making sure you stick to your usual day-to-day routine can help too, as can keeping busy. You're more likely to dwell on the results of your medical test if you are sitting at home alone, so organise fun, relaxing activities with friends - like going for walks, dinner or the cinema.
Exercise and eat well
When you’re feeling anxious or worried, it's easy to slip into a routine of eating junk food and to sit on the sofa, instead of getting exercise.
Although it can be hard to feel motivated, research has shown exercise is a great way to help alleviate worry and stress. Last year, a study from the USA, published in The Lancet Psychiatry Journal, found regular physical activity lasting 45 minutes three to five times a week can reduce poor mental health.
Team sports, cycling and aerobics had the greatest positive impact, so you could try joining a gym class or local exercise group where you can socialise too.
"You can also help relieve anxiety by taking care of yourself," Bell adds. "This could include eating well, being active, if you can, or doing things you enjoy to take your mind off things."
Paying more attention to the present moment - to the way you feel, your thoughts and to the world around you - can improve your mental well-being and help alleviate worries. When we're more aware of what's going on around us and inside us, it also helps us notice signs of stress and anxiety and helps us deal with them better.
"Practising breathing exercises when your anxiety levels rise can also help to calm you, as can complementary therapies such as yoga and meditation," Bell says.
Many of us tend to breathe faster when we’re anxious, which can make us feel sick and dizzy - which in turn can make us feel more anxious. Slowing down your breathing can help ease unpleasant symptoms and keep you calm. Find a comfortable place to sit and try breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. You can try counting slowly from one to five too.
You could also try relaxation exercises too, such as tensing your muscles one by one.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.