Stress and anxiety after a breast cancer diagnosis

Stress and anxiety are common after a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. Learn about the symptoms of stress and anxiety, how to reduce them, and how you can get support.

1. Stress and anxiety

After a diagnosis of breast cancer, you may feel anxious or stressed.

Some people may experience anxiety for the first time.

If you have had anxiety in the past, your anxiety may feel different or worse than before.

There are techniques and support to help you reduce stress and cope better with anxiety.

2. Signs of stress and anxiety

Stress and anxiety can make you feel nervous, worried and tense. 

These feelings can range from being a bit uneasy to a continuing sense of dread. 

You may sometimes feel panicky and frightened. 

While a full diagnosis of post-traumatic distress disorder (PTSD) is rare, you may have symptoms of PTSD such as flashbacks, feelings of detachment and feeling emotionally numb.

Physical signs of stress and anxiety include:

  • Change in appetite
  • Feeling sick
  • Sleep disruption
  • Muscle tension
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Racing heart rate
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Diarrhoea 
  • Feeling more irritable than usual

In some cases anxiety can become so overwhelming that it leads to panic attacks, causing further fear and worry.

Some people with stress or anxiety also have low mood or depression.

3. How to reduce stress and anxiety

There are lots of ways to reduce stress and anxiety. 

Distraction

This involves learning to focus on the things around you, or a hobby or interest, so you can shut out negative thoughts.

Relaxation, visualisation, mindfulness and meditation

These can be used separately or together to reduce stress and tension, relax the mind and body and help improve wellbeing. 

Find out more about relaxation techniques such as mindfulness and meditation.

Planning

If you can, break down larger tasks into smaller tasks, achievable over several days, or make a list of priorities.

One-to-one counselling

Counselling takes place in a private and confidential setting, either in person or online.

You’ll be able to explore feelings such as anger, anxiety and grief, which can be related to your cancer diagnosis, making them easier to understand and cope with.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

CBT can help you change patterns of thinking and behaviour that may be stopping you moving forward. 

Unlike some techniques, it focuses on problems and difficulties you’re having in the ‘here and now’. Instead of exploring causes of your distress or symptoms in the past, it looks for ways to improve your state of mind in the present.

If you think you might benefit from these techniques, your breast care nurse or GP may be able to advise you on how to access them. 

Physical activity and healthy living

Regular exercise, whether it’s a brisk walk or yoga, can help clear your mind and reduce your stress levels.

Drinking alcohol or smoking will not reduce stress or anxiety in the long term, and can lead to other health problems.

Complementary therapies

Some people find complementary therapies and activities such as yoga, tai chi and chi gong reduce stress and improves their mood.

Talk to someone

If you’re finding it difficult to cope emotionally, you might want to talk to someone about how you’re feeling. 

This could be someone in your treatment team, breast care nurse or your GP, who can advise you if more specialist help would be beneficial.

You can also call our helpline and speak to one of our specialist nurses (see below). 

Talking to someone who has had a similar experience may also help. You can do this through a local support group, our forum or our Someone Like Me service.

You can also find tips on coping with anxiety after breast cancer in BECCA, our free app.

Find out more about BECCA and our Someone Like Me service below.  

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Last reviewed in February 2022. The next planned review begins in February 2024.

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If you’re living with or beyond primary breast cancer, Becca is for you. Read trusted information and inspiring true stories.

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