It doesn’t really matter whether you’ve just been diagnosed or you’re several years into your cancer journey - the anxiety you experience leading up to a scan, test, or medical appointment is universal. I’ve watched so many patients endure this difficult hurdle, and so I’m excited to share a technique today that I have personally seen help my clients better cope with scanxiety. There are so many approaches and tools available!
Last week, I talked about a 3 Step Process for Breaking the Cycle of Worry and Fear as taught by Dr. Brewer in his book, Unwinding Anxiety. If you missed that post, be sure to go back and read that as well. For today, we’ll be focusing on a technique called the Neurocycle which is taught by Dr. Caroline Leaf. It’s outlined in her recent book, Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess.
You’ve probably heard me talk about Dr. Leaf before on the podcast and I love her teachings. She believes that diagnoses such as anxiety or depression are not labels we have to feel trapped in, but instead are simply symptoms or warning signals of something deeper that we need to address. She believes, and I agree, that if given the right tools, these symptoms can help point you in the right direction for dealing with the underlying cause. In this way, you can actually heal rather than continue to be defined by the labels.
You don’t have to feel stuck or trapped in any of our diagnoses, whether that’s cancer, anxiety, depression, or anything else. You have the ability to use those symptoms to guide you toward the healing your body is craving and asking for. So I’m excited to dig into this Neurocycle Technique taught by Dr. Leaf!
You can use the neurocycle technique to deal with any negative thoughts or change any bad habits that you want to eliminate. According to Dr. Leaf’s teachings, it takes 63 days to fully develop a new routine or habit, rather than the 21 days many other people teach. So when you think about failing to create a new habit, maybe it was simply that you didn’t stick with it long enough for it to fully become your new routine.
Dr. Leaf teaches how to incorporate this neurocycle long enough to fully adopt a new habit successfully into your life. We’re looking at this neurocycle for addressing scanxiety specifically, so I’m going to lay out the 5 step process and give specific examples of how to apply this for scanxiety.
This amazing practice is so very powerful. When Dr. Leaf teaches the neurocycle for addressing acute stress rather than adopting a new habit, she emphasizes the importance of taking a step back from the stress first. This happens by doing what she calls the “preparation.”
Dr. Leaf shares a couple of different approaches for this preparation piece. One is simply a breathing technique. I’ve talked about many breathing techniques on the podcast and how powerful this simple technique is to override your sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight) and kick in your parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest). She also shares what she calls a “grounding technique” to take a step back from the stress, anxiety, and overwhelm, which is the following:
Acknowledge 5 things you see around you
Acknowledge 4 things you can touch around you
Acknowledge 3 things you can hear
Acknowledge 2 things you can smell
Acknowledge 1 thing you can taste
I love this because it’s so similar to the “runway” Emily Fletcher teaches in her ZIVA meditation, which we outlined in this episode - A Step By Step Guide to Meditation. It reinforces the importance of drawing our attention to the present moment.
This is so important to do throughout the day, especially when you’re feeling overwhelmed. It’s easy for anxiety to come creeping in when you’re over-analyzing the past or worrying about the future. By calling attention to the present moment, you’re using a very powerful tool. Once you’ve done this “preparation” part, as Dr. Leaf calls it, with either the breathing technique or drawing your attention to your 5 senses, you’re going to start with the first step of the neurocycle.
Now let’s go through the five steps of this neurocycle:
You need to gather awareness of your feelings, emotions, and thoughts about the upcoming scan, test, or medical appointment. Take a moment to tune into how you’re feeling, what body sensations you’re experiencing. This step is so important because our human design often allows us to suppress, ignore, or even create distractions to avoid acknowledging or understanding what we’re feeling. Just pause, and take note of what you’re experiencing. Do so without judging yourself about the scanxiety.
In this step, you want to reflect on why you are feeling this scanxiety Dr. Leaf calls this the ASK, ANSWER, DISCUSS step. Ask a series of “why” questions. As you answer, ask another why, then another why. This allows you to dig deeper. Uncovering the root of your anxiety always comes from peeling back the layers. It’s always about the why beneath the why. Your initial answer is never really the core or root of your emotions. Sometimes this “digging” process can be hard. That’s why walking through this with a coach or counselor can be helpful to unpack the source of all of this stress and worry.
You’ve heard a lot about the power of journaling and putting pen to paper. Dr. Leaf incorporates this into her neurocycle, which is wonderful. In this step, you’re going to mentally grab all of the thoughts that you started to process in step 2 and write them down. It’s ok for this to be a jumbled mess. The important thing is getting it all out. Just let it flow and write for about 5 minutes. Let whatever is coming to mind as you think about your upcoming scan flow unto the paper. Seeing this written down and in front of you in a tangible way is a very powerful part of processing your emotions.
Recheck or Reframe
In this step you’re going to reconceptualize your negative thoughts with positive outcomes. If you’re thinking the test will show the cancer has grown or has come back, you’re going to replace that thought with a new outcome such as “my body is strong and healthy.” Remember, this neurocycle isn’t going to be as effective if you simply do it once before your scan. Repeat this over and over as you’re processing your emotions leading up to the scan. Repeat this reconceptualized thought over and over as many times as possible throughout your day leading up to the scan, test, or medical appointment you’re worried about.
In this step, Dr. Leaf teaches to channel your negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions into something positive. Explore what works for you - go for a walk, call a trusted friend, pray, meditate, take a bath, read a book. While the first 4 steps of the process are self reflection, this last step is the action step. Dr. Leaf says that you should take 7-15 minutes on the first 4 steps. She cautions not to spend too much time in the first 4 steps because they can be emotionally draining. The power of this process is to gain more clarity through the first 4 steps, but to move onto taking action, or step 5.
I think the key to dealing with any anxiety, scanxiety included, is to capture the helplessness that is often associated with this emotion and have a tangible, step-by-step process to plug into. This process lets you focus on a system and gives you a sense of empowerment as you transition your worry into action. I hope that these steps help you find peace as you go about your cancer journey.