Managing your emotions | Cancer Research UK
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Will anything help?

Although you may feel low and as though you can't do anything, there are things that you can try and do to help yourself feel better. You may think that nothing is going to help but you won’t know until you give it a go. Try not to feel guilty about feeling like this. This will only increase your levels of anxiety and depression.

At first, you may find it very difficult to want to try any of these suggestions. But, along with other treatment from your doctor or specialist nurse, they are worth a try when you feel up to it.

Please bear in mind that if you are suffering from severe depression or anxiety you will need professional help.


Taking it slowly

Set small goals for yourself and build them up slowly. Try to take each day as it comes and not think ahead too much. If your anxiety, fear or depression is very severe, you may need to get some medical help. Talk to your GP, who can advise you.

Some people find it helps to set themselves small goals each day, even if you just say to yourself, ‘I will get up today and walk around the block once’. Or, ‘I will ring a friend for a short chat today’. This is a start, and a big achievement for someone who is very depressed or anxious.

So give yourself a pat on the back for every task you manage to do each day. You shouldn’t expect to feel better overnight. Feeling better takes time and happens gradually.


Relaxation techniques

Some people find that complementary therapies help them to relax and cope with episodes of anxiety, fear and depression. Relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, visualisation and hypnotherapy are just a few that may help. Having a massage or reflexology may also help you feel better.

One of our website users said 

‘A massage is a great way to relax and reduce anxiety’.

Some cancer units (and cancer support groups) now have a massage therapist. If you think this may help, ask about having weekly massages for a while. If you try any type of complementary therapy it’s vital that the person who treats you is properly trained and qualified. There is information about finding a practitioner in our section about alternative and complementary therapies.



Exercise is another great way to help control the intensity of some of your feelings. Exercise increases the body’s level of chemicals called endorphins. These play a part in helping us feel good.

Don't push yourself too much if your cancer is making you feel ill. Listen to your body, but do try and do something physical, even if it’s a more gentle form of exercise such as yoga. Even if you just go out for a short walk each day, it can help.


Avoiding alcohol and drugs

If you feel very depressed or anxious it can be tempting to try and dull your emotions by drinking alcohol or taking recreational drugs. This may help for a short time but will definitely make you feel worse once the effects wear off.

Having a glass of wine or a beer now and then is not likely to do you any harm. But alcohol abuse and some recreational drugs will make depression worse. If you use them for long periods of time then you may become dependent on them, and this can be very difficult to deal with.


Talking to other people

Find ways to get rid of your tension. Talking to other people, listening to some loud music, yelling at the top of your voice, or having a good cry may help you feel better. Don't be afraid to talk to the people close to you. Not everyone finds it easy to talk about their feelings but choose someone you trust a lot and let them be a listening ear.

It is amazing how talking about your worries can make you feel better. It may be hard to explain how you truly feel, especially to someone who has never felt very depressed or anxious. But many people will be sympathetic.

But some people may find it hard to understand why you cannot make yourself feel better or ‘pull yourself together’. If someone has said this to you, try not to feel hurt and frustrated by it.

True friends will stick by you and they will be there once you feel better again, even if they do not fully understand why you feel the way you do. Many people don’t realise that depression can be linked to a chemical imbalance. But once they know they may be able to understand your situation better.

Another way of getting emotional support is to join a cancer support group. Not everyone feels comfortable doing this but many people find that talking to other people in similar situations helps a lot.

If you would like to talk to someone outside your own friends and family, look at our list of counselling organisations. To find out more about counselling look at our counselling section

The Royal College of Psychiatrists has an excellent leaflet about coping with depression.


Reading about your feelings

Reading doesn’t help everyone but some people find it very useful to read about the depression and what can be done to help. For example, reading this information may help you understand some of your moods and feelings. Hopefully you will realise that you are not alone. Help is available and you can eventually feel better.

There are some very good books and leaflets about managing and coping with depression and anxiety, especially for people with cancer. But there are also some very unhelpful ones. It is important that you read reliable, up to date information. It can sometimes be difficult to know how to find this. There are some suggestions for helpful information in our reading list for this section. Or you can ask your GP or specialist nurse for advice about what to read.


Keeping a journal or drawing

Not everyone likes to write down how they are feeling. But some people find it helps them to understand their feelings better. It can be a great release to get your thoughts onto paper instead of keeping them all inside. Writing something each day, even if it's just a few words, can be really helpful. If you think that feeling better is taking too long, reading back over your journal may help you see that you are making progress. You may see from what you wrote a month ago, that you are not feeling as bad now.

Drawing and art therapy can he helpful. Drawing and painting can be a way of expressing emotions and showing how you feel. We have a page about art therapy. As an example you might like to look at the artworks on the Making Art Personal website, managed by the Michele Angelo Petrone Foundation.


Eating well

This isn’t always easy if your cancer or treatment is making you sick or very tired. But if you can, eating a healthy, well balanced diet will keep up your energy levels and may make it easier to cope with feeling depressed or anxious.

Not eating regularly makes most of us feel terrible. We can become irritable, anxious, lack enthusiasm and find it difficult to concentrate. If you already feel like this, not eating properly will only make things worse. Our News and Resources website has a whole section about healthy eating that you may find useful.

There are some good tips on how to control diarrhoea in the cancer drugs side effects section. We also have sections about sickness and fatigue (tiredness). There are also tips for boosting calories in your food in our section on how to keep your weight up. You may find these useful if your appetite is low.


Coping with sleep problems

We have all had sleepless nights and know they can make you feel tired, cranky and a bit dazed. If feeling sad or depressed is making you have trouble sleeping at night, it may help to change a few things about when and where you sleep.

If you have severe depression, sometimes getting a lot of sleep may not help much, and can make you feel worse. But to make sure you sleep as well as possible

  • Go to bed and get up at the same time each day
  • Try to sleep in a quiet, calm room
  • Make the room you sleep in a comfortable place you like to be – an untidy room may be distracting and make you feel anxious
  • Make sure the temperature is right – not too hot or too cold
  • Sleep with the window open if you prefer, as long as there isn't too much noise outside
  • Spend time relaxing before you go to bed – have a bath, read or listen to music
  • Do some light exercise each day to help tire yourself out
  • Don't drink too much alcohol before bed – you may fall asleep to start with but you'll have a disturbed night
  • Avoid caffeine (coffee, tea, chocolate and cola drinks) after early afternoon
  • If you are napping a lot during the day, try to cut down – you may find you then sleep longer and deeper at night
  • Have a light snack before you go to bed to stop hunger waking you up
  • Try and relax before sleep – you could imagine somewhere beautiful you'd like to be
  • Listen to a relaxation tape

When you really can't sleep, get up and watch TV, read, or listen to music until you feel sleepy. Or try simple relaxing things like taking a warm bath and a warm milky drink. Then go back to bed and try again. Do let your doctor or specialist nurse know if you often have trouble sleeping.


Trying to stay positive

One of the things that people with cancer are often encouraged to do is to be positive. But it is not always that easy. Living with cancer and its treatment can be frightening. There will be times when you may feel low and worry about your future.

It may seem impossible to be positive if you are feeling very depressed or anxious. It may help to remember that being positive

  • Doesn't mean being cheerful and optimistic
  • Means recognising some of the fearful possibilities that can arise from having cancer

Being positive and thinking positively can include feeling upset and frightened. Such feelings can be a sign of strength and may reflect your courage in facing up to an uncertain future. But sometimes it can help to try to change negative thoughts into something more positive when they come into your head. This takes practice.

A good rule of thumb is to stick to what you know is true and don’t let your imagination run away with you. For example, if you keep thinking that your life will never be any good again because of your cancer, consider that this is not true. Most people with cancer do go through some negative feelings during their treatment, but in time things do usually get better.

This doesn’t mean that you always have to stop yourself feeling down. It is important to allow yourself to experience your feelings. So if you need to cry, it is fine to do that. Or if you feel very angry, find a safe way to express this. For example, throwing cushions around a room, listening to very loud music, or doing some exercise. These may sound very unoriginal suggestions but they do sometimes help.

Make sure that you have a good support network of positive people around you, such as close friends and family, doctors and nurses, or a counsellor. These people can really help lift your spirits and be there when you need a shoulder to cry on or an ear to listen to how you are feeling. You may be surprised at how much talking to others can help.

You may find it helpful to read some of the tips and stories for coping emotionally. These have been sent into us by people who have cancer or by their friends and relatives. If you think you have something to say that could help others, please do send a contribution to us.


Controlling other symptoms you may have

If your cancer or its treatment is causing symptoms such as

you may feel more sad or depressed than usual. It is very important to let your doctor know about these and any other symptoms you may have. There are many treatments that could help. The better you feel physically, the more help it will be in coping with your feelings or with depression.

Clicking on the links in the list above takes you to detailed information about these symptoms and how they can be treated.


Learning to live with your cancer

After cancer treatment, it can take a long time to get used to the way you feel about it. Not only are you having to get used to having cancer but you are also coping with the side effects of the treatment. Some of these may be life changing, for example getting used to changes in the way your body looks.

While the treatment for cancer can make you feel ill, some people do manage to lead an almost normal life during their treatment. Of course you may need to take

  • Time off for your treatment
  • Time afterwards to recover

It is difficult to predict in advance how much recovery time you will need. People can feel very tired for some time after treatment. If you look as though you are well, people around you may forget that you have been through a very demanding experience. They may expect you to do things which you do not feel up to. So it is important that you just do as much as you feel like doing and try to get plenty of rest.

If you haven't been able to manage on your own, don't feel that you are a failure. Once other people understand how you are feeling they can be more helpful to you.

For many people, it can be very hard to come to terms with the thought that the cancer could come back. Even if your cancer has been cured by your treatment, your doctor may not be able to be sure about that for some years. You may never be told you are cured. Everyone copes with this in a different way. Some people are able to put it behind them more easily than others. If you are finding this very difficult, it may help to have some counselling. Your counsellor can help you to explore your feelings and find a way to cope with them. This can help even if you had your cancer years before.

If you would like to talk to someone outside your own friends and family, there is a list of counselling organisations in our counselling section.

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Updated: 11 July 2014