Supporting Your Emotional Health When You’re High Risk

20 Aug 2021

The journey for women at high risk of familiar cancer is often an emotional one. For many of us, it begins with one or more family members who have been affected by cancer, which is hard on its own. Making decisions about genetic testing and personal preventive measures like surgery makes this time even more stressful and can affect our mental health. Mental health is a vital component of overall wellbeing, and it’s important to take the time to deal with those emotions.

“I have learned that finding out about being high risk lends itself to general anxiety, which will never completely disappear. I think once I accepted that and tried to find strategies to manage it. Things have improved.  Having a support group is also good to ensure you don’t feel like you are the only one. Feeling alone in my battle has been the biggest cause of anxiety for me personally. Even though there are friends and family supporting me it is ultimately a battle I will have to take alone. ’’ – Pink Hope community member

Anxiety and depression are some of the common mental health issues that may arise. In fact, 1 in 5 women in Australia will experience depression and 1 in 3 women will experience anxiety during their lifetime.

But what exactly is anxiety?

According to Beyond Blue, anxiety is more than just feeling stressed or worried. Stress and anxious feelings are a common response to high-pressure situations, but it usually passes once the stressor is removed or the events have passed. Anxiety is when these feelings don’t subside - they are ongoing and exist without any particular reason or cause.

“I am more irritable than usual, and my moods are very up and down. I sometimes have panic all of a sudden and feel like I just want to stay home and not be around anyone.” – Pink Hope community member

We all feel anxious from time to time, but for a person experiencing anxiety, these feelings cannot be easily controlled, and can be present for weeks to months. Symptoms may include:

  • Obsessive thinking and compulsive behaviour
  • Increasing worry
  • Feeling there are knots in the stomach
  • Tension headaches
  • Hot and cold flushes
  • Racing heart
  • Tightening of the chest
  • Hands trembling
  • Ongoing trouble sleeping and tiredness
  • Ongoing feelings of restlessness and/or irritability

So, what is Depression?
While we all feel sad, moody or low from time to time, some people experience these feelings intensely, for long periods of time (weeks, months or even years) and sometimes without any apparent reason.

“Sometimes I really didn’t want to interact with my inner circle (text, phone calls, emails, etc) and would crave alone time and just want to shut out the world.” – Pink Hope community member 

Symptoms may include:

  • Not going out anymore, withdrawing from family and friends.
  • Increase in substance misuse.
  • Not doing usual enjoyable activities.
  • Inability to concentrate.
  • Social withdrawal.
  • Feeling overwhelmed, irritable, and/or and frustrated.
  • Feeling persistently low in mood, unhappy, miserable, angry or irritable.
  • Thoughts like, ‘I’m a failure,’ ‘I’m worthless,’ or ‘Life’s not worth living.’
  • Feeling tired and run down all the time.
  • Sleep problems.
  • Loss or change of appetite.
  • Significant weight loss or gain.
  • Thoughts of self-harm or suicide.

Keep in mind that it doesn’t necessarily mean you have anxiety or depression if you experience one or two of these symptoms occasionally. It becomes a problem when the symptoms are ongoing and start to affect other areas of life, like relationships with family or colleagues.

For those who have experienced mental health struggles in the past, you can learn to identify personal warning signs by reflecting on which symptoms you’ve experienced in order to recognise potential future episodes.

What can I do?
Every person needs to find the treatment that’s right for them. There are many options, from simply speaking to a friend or counsellor, to taking medication or trying alternative therapies like hypnosis.

For Pink Hope members, you can make use of the online closed Facebook groups by posting questions or discussing frustrations with other high-risk women. If you’d prefer to talk to just one person, simply post and ask if anyone would be willing to speak with you via direct messaging.

We strongly believe that other women who are also at high risk are our best resource. It can help reduce feelings of loneliness or feeling like you have no one to talk to that understands the high-risk journey.

If you prefer to speak to someone anonymously, there are many ways to talk to someone via phone or e-mail/chat. Call Lifeline on their 24 hours Telephone Crisis support (13 11 14) or check their website to communicate through e-mail. See your GP or high-risk specialist for a referral to a psychologist, mental health counsellor, or psychiatrist. Seeing someone who specialises in mental health is the first step; he or she can discuss different treatment options and/or continuing counselling sessions.

How to create good habits
One thing that we can all do is try to prevent these feelings from happening by adopting some simple tips in order to maintain good mental health:

  • Reduce stressIf you are going through a stressful time like caring for ill family members or undergoing preventive surgeries, avoid other life stressors at the same time. For example, put off moving house or starting a new job if possible.
  • Talk about your feelings Ongoing stress in personal relationships often contributes to depression and anxiety. Learn how to let people know about your feelings so that you can resolve personal conflicts as they come up. Surround yourself with supportive people.
  • Have a hobbie Allocate time to do the things you enjoy, such as exercising, meditating, reading, gardening or listening to music.
  • Learn to say ‘no’ Create a balance between work and the things you enjoy doing. Don’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed by new commitments.
  • Learn calming techniques Include short-term coping strategies in your day, such as breathing and relaxation exercises.
  • Drink less Keep in mind that alcohol is a depressant and may worsen depressive feelings. Try to minimise alcohol to 1 drink per day for women.
  • Move more Regular physical exercise has been shown to reduce depression. Even if it is just taking a walk with a friend, keep active. Make it enjoyable – take a class, garden, bike ride with friends or kids. Mental and physical health go hand-in-hand; you’ll feel good physically, which increases mood.
  • Sleep better Adopt good sleeping patterns. Aim for 7-8 hours per night, or whatever you find is best for you. Avoid using electronics before bed as the light can prevent sleep.