Powerful mind-body practices that can help control stress
Being told that you have cancer is stressful
We all encounter stress in our daily lives. However, being told that you have cancer can cause a surge of stress and overwhelm your coping mechanisms. Unfortunately, stress can help cancer thrive, and it is therefore important for cancer patients to actively try to decrease their stress. In this blog, we describe several approaches to manage and reduce stress caused by cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Approaches for coping with stress
Determine your stress level. The Distress Thermometer was developed by the National Comprehensive Cancer Network. By answering some questions, it can determine your level of stress. This information can help your treatment team offer suggestions for lowering your stress. Pursue a psychosocial intervention to manage stress and improve your quality of life. Psychosocial interventions are non-pharmacologic treatments that include mind-body practices, massage therapy, acupuncture, relaxation, and guided imagery. Here we focus on the benefits of mind-body practices, which help modify biological, physiological, or psychosocial processes, as well as improve quality of life. These practices include meditation and movement-based yoga, tai chi, and qigong.
One well-studied mind-body practice for cancer is mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a structured intervention program that helps patients cope with physical and emotional challenges through the development and practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is rooted in Buddhist tradition but is non-religious, and refers to purposeful, nonjudgmental, moment-to-moment awareness. This is in contrast to a behavior that reacts immediately to a situation, dwells on the past, or worries about the future.
A randomized controlled trial involving 336 Danish women with stage I-III breast cancer tested whether an MBSR program can improve quality of life. The study found significant reductions in the levels of anxiety and depression and an improvement in sleep quality in patients who participated in the MBSR program. As described in a recent study, and highlighted in the New York Times, mindfulness practices can change brain patterns and decrease inflammation.
A typical MBSR program involves eight weekly 150-minute sessions consisting of instruction, group discussion, formal meditation practice, gentle hatha yoga, and a 6-hour silent meditation retreat. Participants also practice regular home-based mindfulness meditation and the incorporation of mindfulness into everyday activities. This program has been adapted in a number of ways, including mindfulness-based cancer recovery (MBCR). MBCR is similar to MBSR, although its weekly sessions are shorter and the program is tailored to the unique stressors and experiences associated with cancer. The benefits of MBCR were demonstrated in a randomized controlled trial of 271 distressed survivors of stage I-III breast cancer. Patients were assigned to either MBCR focused on mindfulness meditation and gentle yoga, or a 1-day stress management control condition. Stress levels decreased in patients who received MBCR over the eight-week course, while stress levels in the control group increased over this time.
Mindfulness-based practices can help patients manage the stress of coping with cancer by providing psychological and physiological benefits. The support services of your treatment center should be able to recommend a program in your area. A web search can also help you find a suitable program. For example, online MBSR programs are offered by Emindful, Inc. and Palouse Mindfulness. To learn more about the MBCR program and its development, we recommend the book written by Linda Carlson and Michael Speca.