Monday 3 January, 2022

Practicing Presence During and After Cancer

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It’s not news that being diagnosed with cancer can have an impact on your mental health – after all, research is continually being published about how being diagnosed with cancer can cause depression or anxiety. Data from our own Health Study shows that 92% of people impacted by cancer need mental health support and 72% experience a decline in mental health.  

Though healthcare systems are starting to take this into consideration, there is a way to go when it comes to addressing the mental health of cancer patients and loved ones. It can be hard to know how to handle that impact – where to turn to, what works, how to address what is going on within us and around us. 

However, hope is not lost. A large piece of the puzzle in improving mental health when going through cancer is taking control of our own situation (more on that here). This can be hard because we feel exactly the opposite – out of control of our bodies, what will happen next, and are dealing with life infused with a new sense of uncertainty. Yet, there is still much that we do have influence over. For example, we can focus on what we have, one of which is the present.

What we’ll cover in this blog
What is presence or mindfulness and why is it helpful?
How to become more present during and after cancer

What does it mean to be present and why is it helpful?

What exactly does it mean to be present? Presence has many names – mindfulness, meditation, solitude, prayer, slowing down, whatever you prefer to call it. You can be here, but are you really here? Here’s an example. If you’re washing the dishes, you’re aware of the sensation of the foam on your hands, the sound of running water, the shine of a clean plate. You’re aware of the experience, rather than walking through the motions with your mind elsewhere. Sure, our minds always float and thoughts come and go, but learning to be present in the moment means learning how to bring our mind back to the present, letting thoughts drift away from us, just as they come to us. 

Practicing presence during and after cancer is shown to improve our mental health and decrease stress and toxicity when going through cancer. How? Research indicates that mindfulness “brings about various positive psychological effects, including increased subjective well-being, reduced psychological symptoms and emotional reactivity, and improved behavioral regulation.” 

So without further ado, here are three elements to incorporate in order to practice presence during cancer and improve your wellbeing.

How to become more present during and after cancer

Learn how your brain works

Practicing presence during and after cancer means taking a step back and learning how we function. A big part of integrating mindfulness into your life is being able to train your mind. In order to do so, you need to understand how it works. Dr. Judson Brewer, the director of research and innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center explains that if we can better understand how our brain works, we can also better work with our brain and hack the brain learning system.

Here’s Dr. Judson Brewer’s TED Talk about the power we have through curiosity and awareness to how we respond to stress, worry, or anxiety to re-train our brains to respond mindfully. Take a look here

Include meditation, solitude or prayer in your routine 

With the business of everyday life, and adding hospital checkups, tiredness, side effects from cancer treatment, scanxiety, and more on top of it, it’s easy to feel like we just don’t have time to be mindful. Doing the dishes and thinking about what to get your friend for your birthday feels like killing two birds in one stone. We think it’s efficient (even though research shows that multitasking is seldom more effective than focusing on one thing at a time). 

Yet, if we retrain our brain to not be as distracted by other automatic habits or thought loops, you free up space to use in ways that truly help you de-stress and come back to the present moment. It doesn’t take much time – interspersed micro moments of 1-5 minutes throughout the day to be still and recenter, become aware of the sensations inside of you, and in so doing, come back to the present.

Don’t know where to start? Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Do that ten times in a row. Research shows that as little as 30 seconds, and that a particular frequency of breath – about 6 deep breaths per minute – has a restorative and relaxing response to the brain. Breathing is also a tool that can be used to carve out new neural pathways, which help change our behaviors. It’s easier to remember to do this if you add it as part of your daily routine so there’s something physical that triggers a reminder. For example, before every meal, first thing in the morning, last thing at night. 

Then, shift this moment into a moment of gratitude; think about something you’re grateful for. Give yourself a moment to feel the sensation of thinking about what you’re grateful for, savor it, and in giving your brain those 15 seconds, you give it time to experience the reward and thus help rewire it. Your brain begins to understand that it feels good to take a moment to come back to the present moment and be grateful, making it easier to return to this practice again. In this way, you slowly let go of bad habits and mindfully form new ones. 

Lean into the difficulty of experiencing cancer

Sometimes, as is natural, we flee from uncomfortable feelings and distract ourselves when something is difficult to deal with. This could be everything from a minor unpleasant encounter in our day to consistent negative thought loops, scanxiety, or physical pain due to cancer or cancer treatment.

Although there is a time and place for that, and distractions aren’t all bad, Dr. Judson Brewer explains that when it can be more helpful for us to lean into those sensations, rather than run from them. He explains that “mindfulness is just about being really interested in getting close and personal with what’s actually happening in our bodies and minds from moment to moment. This willingness to turn toward our experience rather than trying to make unpleasant cravings go away as quickly as possible.”

By facing what we feel is uncomfortable through curiosity, we can begin to realize that what we’re experiencing are body sensations; tightness, increased heart speed, tension, coldness, restlessness. 

These sensations come and go and by being present to them, Brewer explains that “we learn that they are bite-sized pieces of experiences that we can manage from moment to moment rather than getting clobbered by this huge scary craving that we choke on. This willingness to turn toward our experience is supported by curiosity, which is naturally rewarding… when we get curious, we step out of our old fear-based reactive habit patterns and we step into being.”

By practicing presence during and after cancer and throughout our lives, we are more able to improve our wellbeing, taking each day in stride. Good ones, bad ones, and everything in between.

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