Looking after your mental health in palliative care

The first steps

Most people experience some strong emotions when a serious illness has been diagnosed. You may find it difficult to talk to friends or family about how you really feel; you tell them that you’re fine, when you feel very different inside.

You may find yourself giving people other reasons for not being yourself, such as ‘just feeling tired’. If you can find the courage to talk to just one person about how you feel, it can be the first step towards dealing with your emotions and helping you to feel better.

Taking care of yourself

Some people find that they lose motivation and begin to limit the amount that they do. You may not go out as much, or you might want to restrict your activities to one room. It helps if the rooms you are in are light and airy. Try not to sit still in one place for long periods of time. Listening to music or radio programmes may also help you feel better. Even doing small activities like these can help you to feel like doing things again and this will make it easier to ask for help.

If you are worried, anxious or depressed, it is quite easy to lose interest in your daily routine and stop looking after yourself properly. Try to make sure that you are eating regular meals.

If you can, try to make plans to do things you enjoy. You could try to book things a few weeks ahead – this will give you something to look forward to. Without things to look forward to, life can feel pointless.

Learn more

Just as you may already have spent time learning about your illness and its treatment, another step you can take is to read about the emotional effects that it may have. It can help to know that the feelings you have are a common reaction to your illness and its treatment. It’s quite normal to have such emotions – they are a natural reaction to any stressful situation. Finding out about common emotional effects can help you realise that you’re not alone in feeling this way.

You may be able to speak to a specialist nurse at the hospital about the emotional effects of your illness. Your GP or practice nurse can also give you further information and advice. Most public libraries will have books on the subject. You might want other people such as your partner or a close friend to learn more too, so that they know how best to help you.

Releasing tension

Sometimes you may feel as if it’s all getting too much for you, and you need to let off steam immediately before you explode. You may feel that if you can’t get rid of some of your pent-up emotions quickly, you will say or do something which you might regret. If this happens, try thumping a cushion or pillow, turning the radio or CD player up very loud, or screaming. Exercise can help release pent-up tension, even gentle exercise such as walking. Having a good cry can also help to release emotions. None of these will do anyone any harm and they may leave you feeling much better.

Some people find that it helps to write down how they feel. Keeping a diary, journal or blog may be a way of allowing you to express your fears and worries, without having to talk them through with other people. You may find it helpful to join an internet community where you can ‘chat’ with others in a similar situation.

Relaxation, visualisation or meditation

Relaxing and trying to calm your fears and anxieties – even for short periods each day – can help you cope with the emotional effects of an illness, and can also help with pain or other symptoms too.

There are many ways of relaxing. There are books, CDs, tapes, DVDs and classes that can show you how to relax; or you may want to take up yoga. Progressive muscle relaxation involves getting to know groups of muscles around your body and learning to tense and relax them.

The Pain Relief Foundation provides relaxation tapes and CDs.

Visualisation (mental imagery)

This is a technique that involves bringing happy, relaxed images into your mind and using them to make you feel less upset or sad. By ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ pictures and sounds from times when you felt happy, you may be able to recapture some of the good feelings you had at the time, and bring these back into your current situation.

Visualisation can also help you to feel more in control of your situation, by ‘seeing’ yourself as a person in control.


There are many different types of meditation, all aimed at calming your mind and helping you to become at peace with yourself. You can try meditation by sitting quietly and being aware of your breathing without trying to control it. Whenever you become aware that thoughts have come up in your mind, just come back to the awareness of your breathing and your surroundings. Instead of being aware of your breathing you can put an object in front of you and focus your attention on it.

Meditation can be very difficult at first, and you may feel that it is not helping as you become aware of how busy your mind is. However, it will become easier as you practise. It may help you to let go of your distressing or depressed thoughts for a period of time once or twice each day. It’s helpful to practise meditation regularly.

People who have particular psychiatric conditions, such as psychosis, may find that some types of meditation make their psychiatric illness worse. If in doubt, it’s best to talk to an instructor from an established meditation organisation (and your doctor or nurse if necessary), before trying meditation.

Complementary therapies

There are many types of complementary therapy. They include acupuncture and acupressure, aromatherapy and other forms of massage, homeopathy, and reflexology.

Complementary therapies work alongside medical treatments for a lot of illnesses and can help you deal with the emotional effects they cause. None of these therapies claim to cure illnesses. It’s important that you do not stop any of your current treatment. If you are currently having treatment for an illness, or taking any medicines, discuss your planned therapy either with your specialist or GP to check that there are no reasons why you should not go ahead. Some complementary therapies may interact with other medicines, so always ask your specialist or nurse before you go ahead with treatment. Most doctors are now comfortable with medical and complementary therapies being used together (a ‘holistic’ approach) to support you. So don’t be afraid to talk about your plans.

Choosing a complementary therapist

If you are considering complementary therapies:

  • always use a qualified therapist who belongs to a professional body. The British Complementary Medical Association can give you the names of registered therapists and advice on what to look for
  • check the cost of treatment beforehand to make sure you are being fairly charged
  • talk it over with your doctor or nurse and ask for their advice, especially if you are going to have a therapy that involves taking pills or medicines
  • ask your doctor or nurse if there are complementary therapies available at your treatment hospital, or through your GP’s practice, or if they can recommend any therapies or practitioners
  • choose the complementary therapy that suits your individual needs. If you are not sure and would like to know what other patients have found helpful, contact a patient support group. Some support groups offer complementary therapies

Don’t be misled by promises of cures. No reputable therapist would claim to be able to cure a serious illness.


Regular exercise can help you to feel better but it’s important not to push yourself too hard. You could go for a walk each day, or if you are able and have the chance, try cycling or swimming. When you exercise, your body produces mood-improving chemicals which can help to ease aches and pains. Regular exercise keeps your body topped up with higher levels of these ‘good mood’ chemicals. Even simple stretches may help you to feel better.


Joining a self-help group can give you many benefits. However, not everyone finds talking in a group easy, so it might not be for you. It might help to go along to see what the group is like and then make a decision.

Self-help or support groups offer a chance to talk to other people who may be in a similar situation and facing the same challenges. Joining a group can be helpful if you live alone, or don’t feel able to talk about your feelings with people around you.

Internet support

The internet is becoming a common way of finding support. There are also a number of social network sites which many people use to keep in touch with each other. These include healthtalk.org. This site is part of the Health Experience Research Group website, where you can share your experience, ask questions, and pass on advice to others.

Someone involved in your care may be able to get you advice on the most relevant and reliable internet support groups or contact a voluntary organisation specific to your illness, for further advice.


It may feel good at first to have a few drinks to help you forget how worried or depressed you may be feeling. However, this is only a short-term solution. Too much alcohol can cause problems and damage relationships with family and friends, which are particularly important at this time. If you are having treatment for a serious illness or taking antidepressant medication, it can sometimes be harmful to combine this with alcohol.

Alcohol is a depressant and so can make you feel even lower. Taking recreational drugs may make you feel better for a short time, but can seriously damage your health in the long term.

Last updated:
01 May 2024