I know that it will not come as a surprise when I say that cancer and its treatment can be stressful for people with cancer and their caregivers. Understatement of the decade, I’d say. When I was sick, for the first time in my life, I started using relaxation techniques and other mind/body practices to help calm my mind and sharpen my ability to focus. I had never used them before but loved them so much that I have carried them into my life after cancer. The way I see it, ANYTHING that I/we can do do reduce stress (caused by cancer or just life in general!) are a Silver Lining.
Here are some techniques that can help you cope with the challenges of cancer*:
At the core of life is breath. Anxiety and stress can make us take short, shallow breaths. Shallow breathing, which does not allow enough oxygen to enter our bodies, can make us even more anxious. Deep breathing is calming, energizing and restorative. Laughing and sighing are the body’s natural ways of getting us to breathe deeply.
Try this four-step breathing exercise anywhere, anytime:
1. Take in a deep breath from your diaphragm (this is the muscle between your lungs and abdomen).
2. Hold the breath for several seconds—however long is comfortable for you—and then exhale slowly.
3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 two more times.
4. Afterward, relax for a moment and let yourself feel the experience of being calm
Just this year, I started meditating. It has made a humongous difference in my life. Three types of meditation include:
- repetitive prayers are a form of meditation
- one-pointed meditation
- two-pointed meditation.
One-pointed meditation focuses on a word or sound called a mantra. Many people create their own mantra from an affirming word, such as “peace,” “love” or “hope.” Once you choose a mantra, find a safe, quiet place and repeat it to yourself during 15- to 20-minute sittings. The goal is to relax the mind, which has a natural tendency to jump from one idea to the next—and from one worry to the next. Do not try to force your mind back to your mantra when you notice it has wandered. Simply guide it back gently, accepting that it may stray again. My mind still bounces around – sometimes like a racquetball game – but I patiently guide myself back to my mantra.
Two-pointed meditation is also called mindful or insight meditation. With this technique, you relax your mind by focusing on your breath. As your mind jumps around, practice non-judgmental awareness—simply observe the pattern of your thoughts and gently guide them back to focus on your breath. Non-judgmental awareness allows you to separate yourself from emotions and sensations rather than getting pulled into them. One benefit of this type of meditation is that you can practice it while seated quietly or when doing daily activities. I happen to love this one!
When I was in the bottomless pit of chemo despair, an amazing psychologist introduced me to guided imagery. This stress-reducing technique combines deep breathing and meditation. As you practice deep breathing, imagine a peaceful scene or setting, perhaps from a memory. Once you are relaxed, you can create a “wakeful dream” in which, for example, you envision pain being washed away or your body becoming stronger.
Many people practice guided imagery exercises while listening to recordings of ambient sounds. These are usually music or sounds from nature, such as waterfalls or ocean waves. Sometimes just listening to ambient sounds is enough to relax your mind and briefly transport you emotionally to a place in which you feel safer and more secure. One of the biggest Silver Linings of guided imagery is that it often enabled me to go into a deep and wonderful sleep!
Other mind/body practices are yoga, tai chi, and Qigong. These techniques are often taught at cancer centers, health clubs, YMCA’s and senior centers around the country. Be sure to ask your health care team about them! Oh and another Silver Lining is that they are often FREE!
* Adapted from the great site Cancer Care