Emotional effectsSee all parts of this guide Hide guide parts
A serious illness can lead to uncertainty in many areas of your life, and this may be a cause of some of the emotions that you have. Feeling that we have some control over our lives gives us a sense of security and allows us to enjoy things that we do. It’s natural to want to know what is likely to happen to us, so that we can plan for our future.
When an illness is diagnosed, it can take away your sense of security and control and this can be very frightening. Uncertainty can be one of the hardest things to deal with and can cause a lot of tension. You may find that you feel irritable, angry and frightened. Sometimes it can help to find out as much as possible about the illness and what may happen. It is best to discuss this with the doctors and nurses who know you and are involved in your treatment.
Often, it’s difficult to know whether treatment will be successful and whether the illness can be cured. Once treatment has ended you may be left wondering whether it will come back. This uncertainty can make it very hard to plan ahead and you may wish that you could know for sure what will happen.
Unfortunately, it is often impossible to know whether a person has been permanently cured of their illness. If someone's illness has come back it is often difficult to say exactly what effect it will have and how long they will live. You may find that your doctors and nurses can't answer your questions fully or that their answers sound vague. Many people find this uncertainty very hard to cope with.
If you find that the uncertainty is a continuing problem and you feel overwhelmed by it, it may help to talk to a counsellor or psychologist. They can help you to find ways of coping with the feelings and emotions that it causes.
If you have been diagnosed with a serious illness and think that you may die, sorting out your affairs so that things are in order and you know that friends or family will be alright can also be helpful. This may be very difficult and painful for you, members of your family and friends.
Our information in the Planning for the Future section may be useful.
Worry, anxiety and panic attacks
When you or someone close to you is seriously ill, it is natural to worry about what will happen. Sometimes the worry can be very intense, and more like fear or anxiety. Fear and anxiety are normal reactions to stressful situations, such as being diagnosed with and treated for an illness.
The fear and anxiety may be present all of the time or may come and go. Sometimes the feelings can be very strong and difficult to cope with. You may find that you can't concentrate, are irritable and easily distracted, sleep badly and get tired easy.
Fear and anxiety can also cause physical effects on the body including:
- overbreathing (hyperventilating)
- tense muscles
- palpitations (a sensation of your heart beating too fast)
- a dry mouth
- feeling sick (nausea)
- chest pain
- a lump in the throat
- pins and needles
- flushing (redness) of the skin, or looking unnaturally pale
There are many ways of dealing with fear and anxiety. Talking to a trained counsellor or therapist can be helpful.
If you are very anxious, you may have a panic attack, where the fear and anxiety is almost overwhelming. You may feel very breathless, find you are sweating or shaking and that your heart is pounding. This can be very frightening, and some people even worry that they will die during a panic attack.
If you are starting to feel that your anxiety or worry is getting worse, and stopping you from being able to carry on normally in your life, you can get help from your GP, your nurse specialist, a counsellor or a psychologist. They can help you look at the reasons for the fear and find ways of coping with it.
Loneliness and isolation
One of the most common feelings people have is loneliness and a sense of being on their own. This isolation can affect people at different times in their illness – when they are diagnosed, during treatment and afterwards. Anyone affected by a serious illness may experience loneliness and isolation.
There can be many reasons why people feel alone. Coping with the feelings and changes an illness brings can be a lonely experience. It’s feeling different to other people that can be so hard.
You may feel lonely even if you’re surrounded by family, because you feel that no one really understands what you’re going through. People react differently. Some people respond by wanting to fight and not let their illness ‘take them over’, others allow the doctors to take control. Some people prefer to feel in charge of their own wellbeing and support themselves in a variety of ways. Everyone’s different and there is no ‘right’ way of behaving.
Often the sense of isolation is made worse if you find it difficult to talk about how you feel and what you are going through. It can be hard to talk friends and 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 helping you to feel better. The less you talk about it, the more your illness may become all you think about. And the more alone you can feel.
Anger and resentment
Understandably you may be very upset by many aspects of the illness. This distress may lead to you feeling angry and irritable.
You may feel resentful that you or someone you care for is seriously ill while other people are well. These feelings are a common reaction and there is no need to feel guilty about having such thoughts or feelings.
However, relatives and friends may not always realise that your anger is really directed at the illness and not against them. If you can, it may help to tell them this at a time when you are not feeling quite so angry and distressed.
Sorrow and sadness
It’s common to feel sad after an illness has been diagnosed. The sadness may come and go, or may be present much of the time.
There are often many changes to be made and you may feel grief as a result of these changes, and at the thought that your future may not be as you had planned.
There may be times when you want to be left alone to sort out your thoughts and emotions. This is a very normal reaction for some people.
However, if you find that you would rather be on your own for most of the time and often avoid talking to other people, this may be a sign that you are depressed.
13 February 2023
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