Virtual Wellness Center

Coping with Stress and Other Strong Emotions After a Cancer Diagnosis

Stress is defined as emotional tension or mental strain. When a person is diagnosed with cancer, it can cause stress or other strong emotions that come with facing the unknown. This is very normal. Stress is a common feeling for most people, but how we choose to cope with the feeling of stress and the problems causing it makes all the difference. Typically, people approach problems in one of two ways: actively working on them or avoiding them. In general, active coping works better and is healthier.

Ways to Cope with Stress

    Things to Practice

  • Accept that the problem exists and decide what you can and cannot control
  • Take action to solve of the problem if possible
  • Plan how you will deal with the problem
  • Try to get a new perspective by making the best of the situation
  • Look for advice and information to deal with the problem
  • Become aware of your feelings about the problem and express them to others
  • Look for emotional support from professionals
  • Practice techniques like meditation, mindfulness, exercise and breathing techniques

    Things to Avoid

  • Deny that the problem exists
  • Withdraw from social experience
  • Avoid any thoughts about the problem
  • Wishful thinking
  • Use drugs or alcohol to forget the problem
  • Blame and criticize yourself for the problem
  • Keep extra busy and ignore the problem

There are different ways you can cope with stress and prepare your mind to cope with a cancer diagnosis in a healthy way. At Henry Ford Cancer, we treat the whole person, and are here to help you with physical and emotional needs before, during and after cancer treatment. Below are some different techniques and activities to help you cope with your emotions in a healthy way.

  • Meditation

    The National Cancer Institute explains meditation as “a mind–body practice in which you focus your attention on something, such as an object, word, phrase, or breathing, to help you find comfort and meaning.” If you have recently been diagnosed with cancer or are facing complications, your mind can be so full of worry and stress, it is a struggle to be present and aware of what’s going on around you.

    Meditation is a skill that requires practice and can bring the following benefits:

    • Increased positive outlook
    • Improved calmness and relaxation
    • Enhanced self-awareness
    • Overall health benefits

    Meditation tips from the National Cancer Institute:

    • Talk with your doctor or physical therapist about what types of meditation you can do.
    • Start with two to three minutes of meditation when you feel negative or stressed. Try longer sessions as you get comfortable.
    • Set a goal for how many times a week you would like to meditate. Maybe start with one or two times each week. Skip days you feel physically unwell. Be mindful of what your body needs, which could be rest.
    • Find a quiet location to sit and lie comfortably. Close your eyes, clear your mind, and breathe naturally.
    • Focus your attention on your breathing and how the body moves when you inhale and exhale without controlling the pace or intensity. If your mind wanders, return your focus back to your breath.
    • Learn new techniques from a trained specialist, or educational video or app.

    Examples of ways to meditate:

    Guided relaxation exercises

    These exercises help you relax and take back a feeling of control over your life. The following guided relaxation exercises were put together by Henry Ford Health experts.

    Breathing strategies

    • Being conscious of your breathing can help you decrease stress and feel more relaxed. Here are some deep breathing exercises you can try.
    • Diaphragmatic breathing
      1. Place 1 hand on your chest and the other on your belly
      2. Take a deep breath in through your nose, allowing diaphragm (abdominal) to inflate with enough air to create a slight stretching sensation in your lungs.
      3. Exhale slowly
      4. Take 6-10 deep, slow breaths per minute for 10 minutes each day
    • Breath Focus
      1. While you practice deep breathing, use a picture in your mind and a word or phrase to help you feel more relaxed.
      2. Close your eyes if they’re open
      3. Take a few big, deep breaths
      4. Breathe in. As you do that, imagine that the air is filled with a sense of peace and calm. Try to feel it throughout your body.
      5. Breathe out. While you’re doing that, imagine that the air leaves with your stress and tension.
      6. Now use a word or phrase with your breath. As you breathe in, say in your mind, “I breathe in peace and calm.”
      7. As you breathe out, say in your mind, “I breathe out stress and tension.”

    Box breathing

    • Breathe in through your nose while counting to 4, slowly (If counting to 4 is difficult, count to 3).
    • Hold your breath for 4 seconds.
    • Being able to slowly exhale for 4 seconds.
    • Repeat for a few minutes OR until calm

    The Henry Ford Center for Integrative Medicine has experts that specialize in teaching people to meditate.

  • Mindfulness

    Mindfulness is when a person focuses only on experiences happening in the present. Another way to describe mindfulness is “being in the moment.”

    Benefits of mindfulness include:

    • Better sleep
    • Lower levels of stress
    • Reduced anxiety
    • Increased enjoyment of daily things while being mindful (taste of food, etc.)
    • Increase in positivity
    • Decreased anxiety around diagnosis and cancer treatment

    Mindfulness can be practiced through meditation, conscious breathing or other exercises focusing your 5 senses.

    Mindfulness resources:

    Practice mindfulness anywhere guided by these free mindfulness apps for your phone or tablet:

  • Art Therapy

    Expressing yourself through art can have a therapeutic effect on your mind and body. Creating art will help you to slow down and explore any issues you may be having. While there are many benefits to working with a certified art therapist, there are also many simple activities you can try from the comfort of your home, like art journaling, sketching, coloring, making collages, sculpting with clay, etc. that can give you similar benefits.

    Art therapy benefits:

    • Acknowledge and recognize strong feelings you are having
    • Feel accomplished
    • Express strong emotions and fears in a healthy
    • Relieve stress, anxiety depression and other emotional trauma
    • Feel more relaxed

    Learn more about art therapy at Henry Ford Cancer.

  • Sleep Hygiene

    Good quality sleep is important for all aspects of life, especially while in cancer treatment. Good quality sleep is linked to improved mood and decreased anxiety and depression.

    Ways to create a good sleep routine:

    • Stop caffeine intake 6-7 hours before bedtime
    • Decrease midday naps and limit naps to 30 minutes if needed
    • Stop using electronics such as your mobile phone or tablet 30 minutes before bedtime
    • Use your bed for sleeping only to encourage restful sleep
    • Keep your room at a cool, comfortable temperature (65-75 degrees F)

    For more information on sleep hygiene, visit American Sleep Association.

  • Exercise

    Aerobic Exercises

    • Walking, jogging, swimming, cycling, dancing, etc. have been proven to reduce anxiety and depression.
    • Experts recommend that cancer patients and those who have recently finished treatment should exercise at least 3 times a week for 30 minutes each time, with the goal of reaching 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week.
    • Strength training should also be included in your exercise regimen, aiming for a full-body workout 2 days a week.
    • Always consult with your doctor before starting a new exercise routine for your safety.


    • Henry Ford offers the ExCITE (Exercise and Cancer Integrative Therapy Education) program to all cancer patients and post-treatment survivors.
    • This program pairs you with an exercise physiologist, who meets with you and prepares an individualized exercise plan based on your needs.


    • The benefits of yoga include increased strength, flexibility and balance, improved mood and improved sleep. Henry Ford offers yoga videos for different skill levels.

    Exercise Videos

    • You can find exercise videos of all types and for all skill levels on YouTube, google, through your cable provider or on workout apps.

    Besides improving mental health, studies have shown that regular exercise helps to prevent cancer and help cancer patients and post-treatment survivors live longer.

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Breathing Exercises

Breathing exercises are an easy way to relieve stress and anxiety, and you can do them anywhere! Henry Ford experts explain 3 breathing techniques and when to use them.


Let our psych-oncology experts help you and your family cope with the stressors associated with cancer in a healthy, adaptive way, from diagnosis through survivorship. We offer in-person and virtual appointments.

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Newly diagnosed?

Contact the cancer team 24/7 by calling (888) 777-4167.


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