10 Ways to Ease Your Nerves Through a MRI or CT Scan

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Medical imaging might be one of the most dreaded ways to spend an hour: lying flat on your back, being unable to move, and feeling trapped, all while listening to the banging and clanking of machines. Not to mention the worst part—having nothing but time to worry about the results. 

Whether it’s an MRI, CT scan, PET scan, ultrasound, or even a mammogram, these kinds of tests are extremely scary and stressful for most people, including me. I recently underwent a nuclear medicine scan after cancer treatment, and let me tell you, I had anxiety weeks before the appointment. 

Jason Price can relate. The North Shore based Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and father of two, estimated that he’s had 10 MRI’s over the past 15 years for vertigo, a condition that causes dizziness. 

“You’re going in head first and having to lie there motionless, feeling a lack of control,” said Price. “To make matters worse, my vertigo is more intense while lying flat on my back so I’m in there slightly dizzy, being told not to move for 45 minutes.”

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Price, who has been a therapist for 21 years, said fear of tight spaces and confinement is not uncommon. Fortunately, there are things you can do in the weeks leading up to your appointment that might help. One solution is meditation.

“There’s been a lot of research about learning to meditate, so that when you’re actually in the machine, you’ve practiced those skills and you can use them to calm yourself,” he said.

Price said the key to soothing anxiety before and during the scan is to distract yourself; get your mind focused on something positive. Something that isn’t the stressor.

“Instead of lying there and thinking, ‘What happens if I have a tumor?’ I tell people to focus on nothing medical whatsoever,” he said.

For Price, that means golf. The avid golfer who played in college, Price said during his last MRI, he chose his favorite golf course and played the holes in his head.

I didn’t golf during my scan. Instead, I sang. In an effort to pass time and calm myself, I sang (in my head) the entire songs, “We are the World,” by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson, “Honesty,” by Billy Joel, “How Deep Is Your Love,” by the Bee Gee’s, and a few other oldies.

If you’re not into playing 9 holes of golf or a self-serenade, here are 10 other ways to calm yourself and pass time during a medical scan:

  1. Make a list of your top 10 favorite movie scenes and watch them in your head.
  2. Think about each of your family members and close friends, and describe in your head what you love about each one. Don’t forget pets!
  3. Try to remember every vacation you’ve ever taken, where you went and what you remember most. 
  4. Name all your ex-boyfriends (or girlfriends) starting with your first kiss, and think about what you learned from each of the relationships.
  5. Plan your Thanksgiving dinner. Think about the dishes you are going to make, the recipes, and the places you need to go to shop for ingredients.
  6. In your head, recite every job you’ve ever had and take a few moments during each one to remember what you liked and disliked about it.
  7. Considering renovating a room in your home? Think about what specifically you’d like to change and where you might shop for furniture and décor.
  8. Pretend you are in the last 5 minutes of a yoga class and you are in Shavasana (the resting pose.) Try to appreciate that you have this time to rest. 
  9. Count. Just start counting until you don’t feel like counting anymore. I made it to 179.
  10. Talk to yourself in a positive, calming way. Think, ‘I am doing what I need to do to stay healthy. This is going to turn out fine. I am strong. I can handle this. After this, I am going to go home and have a nice lunch, take my dog for a walk, and read that book I can’t put down.’

If none of these are doing it for you, Price said some people go to a hypnotist beforehand, in hopes to alleviate fear and anxiety through your subconscious. Another option is to ask your doctor if he or she can prescribe an anti-anxiety medication, such as Xanax, that you can take before your appointment. Although, if you choose this solution, keep in mind you might not be able to drive.  

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Now on the other side of things—delighted by the results of my scan, I realize the experience wasn’t so bad. The stress and fear of medical imaging is manageable, it just depends on how you decide to use your time during the scan. 

One more tip: After the scan, don’t try to read the expression on the technician’s face for your results. Trust me, it will only cause more stress. You may convince yourself they saw something wrong, when in reality the person has a concerned look on his or her face due to a bad day or trying to remain professional. 

Another thing, don’t ask the technician for the results. That just puts the person in a bad spot because he or she is most likely not permitted to reveal anything. Also, the person might not fully understand the images. 

When it comes to medical imaging and test results, the best advice I can offer is to have faith. My illness made me realize something important: America has the best health care system in the world; the best doctors, nurses, technicians, staff, hospitals, research, treatments, and of course, testing, which includes MRIs, CT and other scans. 

Try to remember that the scan is your friend. It’s designed to offer information your body needs to fix it, heal it, and keep it healthy. Isn’t that alone worth the sacrifice of feeling uncomfortable for an hour?

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Jackie Pilossoph is a former television journalist and newspaper features reporter. The author of four novels and the writer of her weekly relationship column, Love Essentially, Pilossoph is also the creator of the divorce support website, Divorced Girl Smiling. Pilossoph holds a Masters degree in journalism and lives in Chicago with her two teenagers.

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