Lying face down on an MRI table is uncomfortable for anyone.
When it’s you and it’s your first scan, post-procedure, it’s painful both physically and mentally.
I had undergone a partial mastectomy just six months ago and my first chest MRI was scheduled. I cinched my eyes shut tightly before they pulled the table into the machine—I didn’t want to see the small space I’d occupy for the next 30 to 40 minutes. I felt like a passenger on a small aircraft.
The voice came across the oversized headphones, “Amanda, we are going to start this first scan and it will last for five minutes. Are you comfortable? Don’t move, okay?” Cue: anxiousness.
You’re left alone in the machine, the room, and worst of all, inside your mind. All I could think about was, “What if they find something?” And it’s a thought that sits on repeat for the remaining hours and days until you get the results back.
Millions of people the world over undergo scans on a daily basis for various reasons. If you’re one of them, you may be feeling like me. If you’re a friend, spouse, sibling, or significant other to someone who has, this will help you understand them just a little bit better.
If you look for a definition on the term scanxiety, you won’t find one; unless of course you find the collaborative forum of Wiktionary to be a trusted source. You will however find a definition for anxiety:
1. A feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. “he felt a surge of anxiety”
2. Desire to do something, typically accompanied by unease. “the housekeeper’s eager anxiety to please”
3. A nervous disorder characterized by a state of excessive uneasiness and apprehension, typically with compulsive behavior or panic attacks.
So what is scanxiety if not anxiety alone?
Having been diagnosed with a medical problem, you’ll begin to receive treatment. Eventually, you’ll need a follow-up appointment that could involve a scan to see how well you have received your initial treatment. The mounting feelings you begin to experience ahead of your appointment can be identified as scanxiety.
Almost without permission, your brain begins to race, flooding you with questions: What if the treatments didn’t work—what if I’m worse now than before? What if—what if—what if?
If you throw scanxiety into google, you’ll come up with hundreds of articles relating exclusively to cancer patients. While I found this particularly helpful because my scanxiety is directly related to a cancer diagnosis, what about the millions of others who battle scanxiety in regard to non-cancer related illnesses?
People around the world can relate to anxiety ahead of a scan, whether it’s related to cancer, heart disease, liver failure, or (insert illness here). They do not feel anxiousness at any other times in their daily life and they, like me, do not want to be labeled “anxious.”
Here is why people suffering with scanxiety feel that there’s a difference:
It’s situational. I don’t feel this way at any other time in my life! How can I be labeled anxious when I only feel that way in one situation that may happen a few times a year?
Many articles tell you to look for these symptoms as an indicator for whether or not you are suffering with anxiety:
>> Feeling restless, wound up, or on edge
>> Being easily fatigued
>> Having difficulty concentrating; mind going blank
>> Being irritable
>> Having muscle tension
>> Difficulty controlling feelings of worry
>> Having sleep problems, such as difficulty falling or staying asleep, restlessness, or unsatisfying sleep
Now, here is what you’ll find in regards to scanxiety:
That’s right, you’ll find “see anxiety.”
So then I searched, situation anxiety:
>> Difficulty napping
>> Muscle tension
>> Tension and headaches
>> Muscle pain (particularly chest)
The only thing different between these two lists are nervousness and headaches. So are we an anxious people by definition, or do we stand up and say “I’m only uneasy when a scan is needed”?
Nobody wants to be mislabeled in today’s world, and you see evidence of that everywhere you look: new terms and phrases are being created every day so that we have an inclusive society where nobody is classified incorrectly. And those with scanxiety are no different.
Until that sweet day when Merriam-Webster editors decide to add scanxiety into the dictionary, know that you are not alone.
Here are some ways to help you or someone you love cope next time a scan is needed:
I find it particularly helpful while inside of the MRI machine, standing at the mammogram machine, or laying on the table during an ultrasound to focus my eyes on one spot (or close them tightly) and pay attention to my breathing. I breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth in an easy and relaxed manner. Concentration on my breathing is also helpful while having an IV put in, undergoing a blood draw, or just receiving a single injection.
Think about what you are thinking about.
This point coexists with meditating but if you are new to these concepts, let’s help familiarize you. You cannot worry about the unknown but you do know yourself in this moment and can be honest. If your inner self begins agonizing you with worrisome thoughts that you do not know to be true yet, label those thoughts as false and return to your present moment, focusing again on your breathing: in for a three count, out for a five count.
Have someone who cares about you deeply accompany you to your appointment. If this is not possible, have them on speed dial for just before and after your appointment time. This person, who has already come to your mind while reading this, knows you and knows just how to help you momentarily forget all of your troubles and worries. They can help to reassure you that no matter what happens, you have an ally.
Most health care professionals are sensitive to our needs in these special situations. If you find yourself particularly anxious regarding your upcoming visit, call ahead and request help. Ahead of my most recent chest MRI, I was asked if I would find it helpful to have a mild sedative; just the offer alone was comforting enough that I realized, “I can do this”—but I was grateful for the gesture.
Contemplate the worst but hope for the best.
Get real with yourself. Play out a few of your worst-case scenarios and walk each one of them back in your mind, considering what you’d do if any of them happened. Just like in any other life event, preplanning can help you strategize and navigate those scenarios.
Consistent acknowledgment that there will be situations in our life that are beyond our control can help us handle those moments a bit easier when they actually arise. For now, practice some of the above techniques and know that you are not alone or without options.
“If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.” ~ Lao Tzu