Managing Stress with Mindfulness
Last updated: May 2023
Have you heard of mindfulness? It seems to be "the" thing these days, with good reason. It has been scientifically proven to help people cope better with disease and stress.1
What is mindfulness?
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, mindfulness is “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.” Dictionary.com says it is “the state or quality of being mindful or aware of something.” Mindful.org defines it like this, "Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”
Okay...so, essentially, mindfulness is being in the moment. It is not allowing fear or worry to throw us into the future or back into the past. Obviously, if you are thinking only of right now...the only time over which we truly have any control anyway...there is usually nothing to fret over. Living in the moment keeps worry from stealing our ability to live and enjoy the life we've been given.
Focus on your breath
You may be convinced that practicing mindfulness is a good idea, but it may also seem like a near impossibility with all that you have on your shoulders in dealing with your cancer diagnosis and treatment. However, there are some simple techniques that you can try to bring your thoughts into the present moment.
One of the easiest things to do to relieve your stress is to simply count your breaths. Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose, using your diaphragm. As you breathe in, count to three or four. Now, hold the breath for one second. Next, slowly and deliberately exhale through your mouth. Count to three or four as you let out your breath. Repeat this exercise several times. The exercise should briefly take your mind off of your worries and put you back into the present moment.
Practicing a full body scan
Another method you can try is performing a mental body scan. This technique takes a little more time than the breathing exercise but can be very helpful in bringing your attention to this moment. The actual step-by-step details are provided by Mark Bertin, MD, but essentially it is an exercise where you very deliberately move your attention from your toes all the way up your body to the top of your head, noticing what you are feeling as you go.
For instance, when focusing on your toes, you may feel the pressure of them touching the floor, whether they are hot or cold, or if they itch. Your mind may wander and that's okay. Just calmly bring it back to the moment, to your feet, without dwelling on where or why it wandered.
By the time you have reached the top of your head, it is likely that you will feel much calmer than before you began the exercise. At the conclusion of the exercise, simply experience a brief moment of stillness before intentionally choosing to resume your daily activities.
Additional resources for mindfulness
If you're interested in learning more ways to practice mindfulness, spend some time on Mindful.org. They recently posted their top 10 guided meditations for 2018.
When practicing mindfulness, it is important that you are:
- Non-judgmental. Be aware of your thoughts, emotions, and experiences without judging their validity.
- Present. Neither run on autopilot nor worry about tomorrow or the past.
- Curious. Examine the emotions as if you are seeing them for the very first time.
- Trusting. Trust yourself and your ability to work through any challenges that come up.
- Non-striving. Be in the moment, think of nothing but right now.
- Accepting. Acknowledge things as they are.
- Non-impulsive. Let go of all thoughts and judgments.
Benefits of mindfulness
Mindfulness can be practiced formally or informally. When you are doing a specific exercise, you are practicing formally. When you simply incorporate techniques into your daily life, you are practicing the process informally. If the techniques are new to you, it is helpful to begin with formal practice.
Be patient with yourself. It takes time to develop these skills. But, you'll be glad you did.
What healthy habits do you use to improve the quality of your life?