I read a fantastic book this week called The Mindful Way Through Stress by Shamash Alidina. While it's not written specifically for cancer survivors, it's highly relevant to the heightened level of anxiety many cancer survivors face. Alidina's introduction to mindfulness is excellent, which I will summarize for you.
Breaking Your Mind's Habits
Human beings are programmed to function habitually. Our brains learn to follow the same pathways, becoming efficient at performing repetitive tasks. This is why we can do many things at once, like walking and talking at the same time. Imagine if we had to think about walking with every single step; it would take too much energy and we'd never accomplish anything.
The problem with this efficiency is that it can also be maladaptive. The brain can habitually react negatively to the world when we're in a heightened state of anxiety or stress. This is something that happens to many people during cancer treatment. Pain, fear, and anxiety become common experiences and our brain adapts to the negative stimuli, learning to interpret the world as an unfriendly place. Negative reactions become habitual and we forget to pause and wonder if there's another way to view the world.
Mindfulness is a weapon against this automatic negative thinking, a way to pay attention with intention. Mindfulness is a method of being present at THIS moment in time and experiencing the internal and external world with an attitude of openness, curiousity, and self compassion.
The benefits of mindfulness come in four flavors: physical, mental, emotional, and relational.
1. Physical Benefits
decreased muscle tension
better digestion with mindful eating
increased levels of telomerase, an enzyme associated with protecting your DNA from aging
improved quality of sleep
2. Mental Benefits
3. Emotional Benefits
protection from depression
reduction in feeling of loneliness
fewer feelings of anger
4. Relational Benefits
being more present in relationships
better consciousness of relationship choices
greater capacity for kindness
It's exciting to imagine that taking a few minutes a day to breathe and form a true sense of the world around you has such potential. Can you see how any of these benefits would improve your own physical or mental well being?
Cancer survivors can use mindfulness to become conscious and take control of their interactions with the world around them. Mindfulness increases compassion for yourself, decreases mental fatigue, and paves the way to true wellness after cancer.
For ideas on ways to start a mindfulness practice, see this blog post:
Take care, survivor.