Managing your emotions

There are things you can do to help yourself manage your feelings and emotions.

Helping yourself

There are things that you can try to help yourself feel better even though you may feel low and as though you can't do anything. You may think that nothing is going to help, but you won't know until you give it a go.

Try not to feel guilty about these thoughts. This will only increase your levels of anxiety and depression.

At first, you may find it very difficult to want to try any of these suggestions. But, along with other treatments from your doctor or specialist nurse, they are worth a try when you feel ready.

You might need to get professional help if you feel anxious, frightened or depressed most of the time. Talk to your GP, who can advise you.

Set small goals for yourself and build them up slowly. Try to take each day as it comes and not think ahead too much.

Some people find it helps to set small daily goals, even if you just say to yourself, "I will get up today and walk around the block once". Or, "I will ring a friend for a short chat today". This is a start and a big achievement for someone who is very depressed or anxious.

So give yourself a pat on the back for every task you do daily. You shouldn’t expect to feel better overnight. Feeling better takes time and happens gradually.

Exercise is another great way to help control the intensity of some of your feelings. Exercise increases the body’s level of chemicals called endorphins. These play a part in helping us feel good.

Don't push yourself too much if your cancer makes you feel ill. Listen to your body, but do try and do something physical. Even trying something gentle such as yoga or a short walk each day, can help.

This isn’t always easy if your cancer or treatment makes you sick or tired. But if you can, eating a healthy, well balanced diet will keep up your energy levels and may make it easier to cope with feeling depressed or anxious.

Not eating regularly makes most of us feel terrible. We can become irritable, anxious, lack enthusiasm and find it difficult to concentrate. If you already feel like this, not eating properly will only make things worse.

Trying to dull your emotions by drinking alcohol or taking recreational drugs can be tempting if you feel very depressed or anxious. This may help for a short time but will definitely make you feel worse once the effects wear off.

Having a glass of wine or a beer now and then is not likely to do you any harm. But taking too much alcohol and some recreational drugs will make depression worse. You may become dependent on them if you use them for long periods, which can be very difficult to deal with.

Some people find that complementary therapies help them to relax and cope with episodes of anxiety, fear and depression. Relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, visualisation and hypnotherapy are just a few that may help. Having a massage or reflexology may also help you feel better.

Some cancer units and support groups have a massage therapist. Ask about having weekly massages for a while. Make sure you use properly trained and qualified practitioners.

Find ways to get rid of your tension. Talking to other people, listening to some loud music, yelling at the top of your voice, or having a good cry may help you feel better.

Don't be afraid to talk to the people close to you. Not everyone finds it easy to talk about their feelings but choose someone you trust a lot and let them be a listening ear.

Talking about your worries can be a huge relief and make you feel better. It may be hard to explain how you truly feel, especially to someone who has never felt very depressed or anxious. But many people will be sympathetic.

True friends will stick by you

But some people may find it hard to understand why you cannot make yourself feel better or ‘pull yourself together’. If someone has said this to you, try not to feel hurt and frustrated by it.

True friends will stick by you, and they will be there once you feel better again, even if they do not fully understand why you feel the way you do. Many people don’t realise that depression can be linked to a chemical imbalance. But once they know, they may be able to understand your situation better.

Counselling and joining a cancer support group

Another way of getting emotional support is to join a cancer support group. Not everyone feels comfortable doing this but many people find that talking to other people in similar situations helps a lot.

Look at our list of counselling organisations if you would like to talk to someone outside your friends and family. To find out more about counselling, look at our counselling section. 

The Royal College of Psychiatrists has information about coping with depression.

Not everyone likes to write down how they are feeling. But you may find it helps you to understand your feelings better.

Getting your thoughts onto paper can be a great release instead of keeping them all inside. Even if it's just a few words each day, it can be really helpful.

If you think that feeling better is taking too long, reading back over your journal might help you see that you are making progress. You may see from what you wrote a month ago, that you are not feeling as bad now.

Drawing and art therapy can be helpful. Drawing and painting can be a way of expressing emotions and showing how you feel.

You might find it very useful to read about depression and what can be done to help.

For example, reading this information may help you understand some of your moods and feelings. Hopefully, you will realise that you are not alone. Help is available to support you.

Finding the best information

There are some very good books and leaflets about managing and coping with depression and anxiety, especially for people with cancer. But there are also some very unhelpful ones.

It is important that you read reliable, up to date information. It can sometimes be difficult to know how to find this. Some helpful information suggestions are in our reading list for this section. Or you can ask your GP or specialist nurse for advice about what to read.

Coping with sleep problems

We all have sleepless nights and know how tired, cranky, and dazed they can make you feel.

If feeling sad or depressed makes you have trouble sleeping at night, it may help to change a few things about when and where you sleep. If you have severe depression, sometimes getting a lot of sleep may not help much, and can make you feel worse.

Do let your doctor or specialist nurse know if you often have trouble sleeping.


  • Go to bed and get up at the same time each day.
  • Do some light exercise each day to help tire yourself out.
  • Try to cut down on napping a lot during the day - you may find you then sleep longer and deeper at night.
  • Avoid caffeine (coffee, tea, chocolate and cola drinks) after early afternoon.
  • Have a light snack before you go to bed to stop hunger waking you up.
  • Spend time relaxing before you go to bed - have a bath, read, listen to music or listen to a relaxation CD or podcast.
  • Try to sleep in a quiet, calm room that’s not too hot or cold. And remember an untidy room may be distracting and make you feel anxious.
  • Avoid drinking too much alcohol before bed - you may fall asleep to start with, but you'll have a disturbed night.

When you really can't sleep, get up and watch TV, read, or listen to music until you feel sleepy. Or try simple relaxing things like taking a warm bath and a warm milky drink. Then go back to bed and try again.

Controlling your symptoms

Some symptoms might make you feel more sad or depressed than usual. It is very important to let your doctor know about your physical symptoms. There are many treatments that could help. The better you feel physically, the more help it will be in coping with your feelings or with depression.

Learning to live with your cancer

After cancer treatment, it can take a long time to get used to the way you feel about it. You are having to get used to having cancer as well as coping with the side effects of the treatment. Some of these may be life changing, for example getting used to changes in how your body looks.

While cancer treatment can make you feel ill, some people do manage to lead an almost normal life during their treatment. You might need to take time out of your normal routine for treatment. It is important to allow yourself enough time to recover after treatment. 

At first, you might feel a sense of loss and miss your contact with your doctors and nurses. It can be useful to talk to someone close to you.

Looking well, but not feeling great

It is difficult to predict in advance how much recovery time you will need. You might feel very tired for some time after treatment.

People around you can forget that you have been through a very demanding experience if you look as though you are well. They may expect you to do things which you do not feel up to. So it is important that you just do as much as you feel like doing and try to get plenty of rest.

Don't feel that you are a failure if you haven't been able to manage on your own. Once other people understand how you are feeling they can be more helpful to you.

Worrying about your cancer coming back

You might find it very hard to come to terms with the thought that the cancer could come back.

Even if your cancer has been cured by your treatment, your doctor may not be able to be sure about that for some years.

You may never be told you are cured.

Everyone copes with this in a different way. Some people can put it behind them more easily than others. If you find this very difficult, it may help to have some counselling, even years after your treatment. Your counsellor can help you to explore your feelings and find a way to cope with them.

More information

Maudsley Learning, part of the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, has a set of cancer and mental wellbeing videos for people affected by cancer.

The videos have information and advice on what to do if a cancer diagnosis affects your mental health. They cover several topics, including breaking bad news, managing anxiety, common reactions to a diagnosis, and relationships.

Related links