Conquer Your Fears: 3 Effective Strategies for Managing Medical Screening Anxiety

May is Womens Health month, a time when preventative care is highlighted. As a young breast cancer survivor, Im grateful for how medical screening saved my life. As a psychotherapist who specializes in medical trauma, I know that being proactive about health is often easier said than done.

Anxiety and dread about medical screening can prevent people from getting the testing they need. This is particularly true for people whove experienced life-threatening medical conditions and/or caregivers for loved ones, as unresolved trauma about that experience surfaces each time.

Heres my top 3 strategies for managing medical screening anxiety. These skills are a lifeline that can help you move from feeling afraid and avoidant to feeling capable and taking action.

1. Ground your stress response using your senses. Your ability to tap into your senses during a highly anxious time sends signals to your nervous system that it does not need to go into fight, flight, or freeze mode. Grounding works because it helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you to feel more calm.

When you tune into your senses, youre re-oriented to the present moment. This helps you to cognitively distinguish between the fear of what could be to the reality of the here-and-now. Even if youre facing a serious health problem, its important to be able to calm and soothe your nervous system effectively so that you can navigate it.

Theres a simple grounding exercise called 5-4-3-2-1. Using your current location, you start the exercise by naming 5 things you can see, 5 things you can hear, five things you can feel/touch. Continue the exercise, going down by one, until you finish with 1 thing you can see, hear, and touch. Its fine to repeat answers, whats most important is that you tune into your senses as you identify each one. By the end of the process, you should feel calmer and more present.

2. Neutralize your fearful thoughts. When youre being screened for a medical concern, its very common to have scary thoughts about the outcome. In the cancer community, we call this "scanxiety”, the anxiety you feel about scans. In reality, it’s PTSD in action.

While it may be tempting to try and push these thoughts out of your mind, whats more effective is to try and neutralize them through exposure. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) calls this cognitive defusion”, which changes your relationship with difficult thoughts.

One example is the ACT Computer Screen. Its a guided visualization technique in which you take a scary thought, like my cancers back”, and then defuse it. As you move through the exercise, the thought becomes less intense emotionally. This helps you learn how to neutralize fears that come from anticipatory anxiety. 

3. Process your experience using Art Therapy. To genuinely manage the anxiety you feel, you need to process the experience. By telling the story of what happened, you release the tension thats being held inside.

However, its often difficult to verbally articulate the feelings as the existential dread lives in your subconscious for protection. This is why art therapy is a powerful storyteller, because it uses non-verbal, symbolic communication to get the job done.

Art therapy helps you validate your experience, relieve distress, and improve creative problem solving. You dont have to be an artist to benefit. Theres no right or wrong way to do it, let your creative impulses guide the way.

To begin, select an important moment from your experience that youd like to explore. Use your art supplies to tell the story, whether it's an abstract or literal depiction of your experience. Trust what feels right to you. Finish by describing the piece by writing in a journal or telling someone you trust.

While contending with anxiety about medical screenings is a complex process, these strategies will bring more ease into your life. May they help you negotiate the tension you feel, so that you can take good care of yourself and the ones you love. 

Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and a breast cancer survivor. Her unwavering passion lies in empowering women to embrace life boldly, through connecting to their innate creativity and resiliency. To learn more about her coaching services and story, visit Subscribe to her free newsletter,"Spark Curiosity, Live Radiantly," for complimentary Art Therapy Guidebooks and exclusive access to enriching workshops.

4/27/2024 4:00:00 AM
Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC
Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor who is pas-sionate about helping people live life boldly, no matter what kinds of obstacles they face. Learn more about her work at and subscribe to her Let’s talk Art Therapy; Tips, Tools, Strategies & Resources ...
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