Mindfulness: Managing Stress from Cancer

Mind the stress

Going through cancer and its treatment can be stressful. Parkway Cancer Centre’s counsellor Jaime Yeo looks at how to manage the stress.

Mindfulness helps you to manage stress, not by ignoring it but by being aware of it. Founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is a moment-by-moment awareness of what you are experiencing, in a non-judgmental way. Studies have shown that mindfulness helps reduce stress, rumination, negative affect (e.g. anxiety, depression), as well as improves focus and the ability to react more calmly in stressful situations.

While breathing meditation is a key aspect of mindfulness, it is not an end in itself. It is a means to train yourself to be more aware and grounded in the present moment, thus enabling you to better assess and respond to daily situations.

Other mindfulness practices include body scans, mindful yoga or mindful eating.

Becoming more mindful does not happen overnight – it takes effort and practice but the benefits are worthwhile. Here we share some mindfulness techniques that you can incorporate and practise in your life.

Practise mindful breathing to anchor yourself in the present

Take at least 10 minutes each day to practise mindful breathing meditation.

Get into a relaxed sitting position. Start by taking 3 deep breaths – inhale deeply for 3 seconds through your nose, hold your breath for about 2 seconds, and then exhale slowly through your mouth for 4 seconds. Then return to your natural breathing pattern and simply focus on your breath as you inhale and exhale.

Notice the sensations in your body, and the thoughts that your mind wanders to. If your mind wanders, just let it be and notice it. Bring your attention back to your breath. You may also use online audio guides to help you through your meditation sessions.

Be aware of what you are experiencing

As you practise breathing, be aware of what you are experiencing in the moment. What sensations do you notice in your body? As you inhale, what do you notice in the different parts of your body as the breath enters? Similarly, what happens when you exhale?

What thoughts go through your mind? What judgments are you making? Instead of trying to block out, fight or pass judgment on these thoughts, observe them as if they were plates moving on a sushi belt – notice, and then let them pass.

Develop non-judgmental awareness

As you become more aware of the judgments you are making, learn to let them go. For example, you could be waiting for the train and may notice the judgment in your mind, “The train is taking too long to arrive!” Notice and acknowledge the judgment, but don’t let it consume your thoughts and emotions.

Take a step back and use the knowledge that you have to look at the situation from different perspectives and explore your options, “Alright, so the train is taking a long time, I can wait for a few more minutes, board the bus or call for a taxi.”

Doing so does not mean you do not hold on to any values or opinions; it means being aware of your thoughts at that moment, slowing down to look at the situation from different angles, rather than reacting based on quick preconceived views.

Understand how you react to stress

When we face a stressful situation, the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for emotions) sends signals which trigger our body’s fight-or-flight response, releasing stress hormones and providing us with a surge of energy to respond quickly to the situation.

This often means that we automatically react without giving much thought. Mindfulness trains the thinking part of the brain (our prefrontal cortex) and prevents us from being swept away by strong emotions of the amygdala. Regular mindfulness practice strengthens our awareness and attention, opening us to more creative choices, calmer reactions and better decision-making.

So if you find yourself reacting strongly or adversely to a stressful situation, take a few moments to focus on your breath and ground yourself in the present.

Bring to awareness what you are experiencing. How are you responding to the stress? What is your body experiencing (heart beating faster, heat going to your ears, etc.)? What thoughts go through your mind? What judgments are you making about the person or situation? What are your possible options to respond? You may find it helpful to jot these down in a journal.

Incorporate mindfulness into your everyday activities

Mindful living goes beyond a few minutes of daily meditation. Practise mindful awareness even as you go about your daily activities – from brushing your teeth, walking, eating or talking to someone. Most of the time, we do these routine activities on auto-pilot mode, but doing them mindfully injects a refreshing perspective to these tasks.

Use mindfulness to cope with pain and discomfort

Research has shown the benefits of using mindfulness to manage chronic pain. Pain includes an objective physical component as well as a subjective judgment of how we experience the pain. Our overall experience of the pain intensifies when we resist and “fight” the pain. Mindfulness helps to reduce our negative judgments of the pain, thus decreasing the psychological distress associated with the pain.

One mindfulness exercise that helps is called a body scan. It involves raising awareness of the pain sensations in your body, approaching it with an attitude of curiosity, openness and acceptance.

As you bring awareness to the pain area, you may ask yourself: What is the shape of the pain? What is the intensity like – constant or moving? This awareness helps you to de-identify with the pain, soften its intensity, and the fear or anxiety associated with it. Use a guided audio body scan to help you with the practice.

If you would like to experience guided mindfulness training, courses such as the structured 8-session Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme are offered by various organisations such as the Brahm Centre or the Singapore Management University.

POSTED IN Psychological Health
TAGS cancer counsellor, stress and cancer