Coping with anxiety about physical health
Last week, I found out that I have big lump on my neck. I went to the GP last week to consult. However, the GP was unable to determine what’s wrong with me and asked me to do some tests.
While waiting for the result of my tests and the next consultation with the GP, I have found that I am unable to concentrate, especially to do the mounting assignments because I’m worried that the lump on my neck is something dangerous. I have a mild anxiety problem, and this anxiety causes me to think about the worst scenario that will happen.
I try not to think about it too much, but I can’t. What should I do?
Thank you for your question. It sounds like a time of uncertainty for you, and the anxiety or concern that you are having about the lump is an understandable and normal reaction. Sometimes when people are already feeling anxious (e.g. about health concerns) additional stress, such as your university assignments, can increase anxiety and also affect concentration. As you have noted, your concentration is affected because you try not to think about the lump, which makes you think about the lump. Often, that is the paradox of trying not to think of something – it makes you think about it. In some ways, thinking about the possible scenarios or worst scenarios can be seen as functional during that time, as it is often seen as preparing oneself for the uncertain future. However, once that starts affecting your ability to do what you need to do on a daily basis, it can become problematic.
Sometimes, practicing mindfulness (try some of our guided exercises here) can help us be aware of where our attention is directed, so we can redirect it back to the task at hand. This could be useful for you when you are completing assignments and you find yourself worrying about the lump. With the practice of mindfulness, you’ll hopefully find it easier to redirect your attention back to your assignment.
It may also be useful to schedule some “worry time”. This involves setting aside 10-15 minutes during the day (preferably not close to bed time) to allow yourself to worry. When you find yourself worrying, remind yourself you will have time to think about it later, write down a short note about this worry (only a couple of words) in a notebook and turn your focus back to the task at hand. Here is a fact sheet and an app to help you practice.
This chapter from Centre for Clinical Interventions offers a good summary of these strategies and provides activity sheets to help containing your preoccupations about health.
While you are waiting for the results and feel anxious, you may also need to adjust your study strategies to your current level of concentration. Don’t hesitate to divide your work in smaller blocks of study, set a time for each task, alternate between tasks demanding different levels of concentration and use active learning strategies to keep you more engaged. Academic Skills have good resources to help you plan essay writing and revision.
Remember that this period of uncertainty and anxiety will not last forever. As you have mentioned, you will be seeing your GP to confirm the results and this could be something to remind yourself when you start to worry about possible outcomes. If you are finding that the anxiety is becoming worse or less manageable, you can also talk to one of our counsellors. I hope you find this information helpful, and I wish you all the best.