Updated: Sep 5, 2019
Have you ever felt like you can’t think clearly because of all the chatter in your head? So many thoughts going on at once you can’t even see clearly what it is you are thinking or feeling. Do you read a page in a book and then start back at the top and it’s like you’ve never read it before? Do you get anxiety but can’t place where it’s coming from? Do things feel so overwhelming that you just say fuck it and ignore it all? Does that to-do list seem never ending and like you can’t accomplish enough to ever get ahead? Maybe it’s not about doing more; maybe it’s about doing less.
Being diagnosed is a powerful thing in itself. Just hearing that news is enough to throw everything in your life into an uncontrollable spin. I remember after doing all the doctors appointments and filling out paperwork and the endless stream of blood work I was finally meeting my oncologist to find out what my actual treatment plan was going to be. I still had it in my head that he was going to tell me it was all over and I was cured. I felt like I had already been through the ringer and it hadn’t even started yet. Friends and family asked me how I was doing and I would just say I’m fine because I had no idea what I was feeling. There was a lot of denial and not wanting to really deal with it because it felt like it was too much. The noise and chatter in my head was endless and overlapping. I would push on as long as I could and then I would quietly go to the bathroom and cover my face with a towel and sob. I’d cry until I threw up. Then I would brush my teeth and walk out like nothing happened. To this day I still can’t tell you exactly what it was I was feeling at the time.
We have so many decisions to make as cancer patients that seem near impossible to deal with. Just trying to figure out what sounds appetizing is enough to bring on anxiety and stress. This is such a crucial time to cut out stress and relax as best we can, yet that seems almost offensive when someone mentions it. Everyone from doctors to friends and family would say try not to stress and relax. What the fuck do you mean don’t stress? I am dealing with cancer! But they are right. Nothing in our bodies works the same when we are extremely stressed. We don’t rest, digest, or heal the same. What we don’t get as often is direction on how to cut down stress. Everything seems so mandatory and unavoidable and just overwhelming. We need time to clear our heads.
Typically when we think of relaxing we think of going to a beach or on some other vacation. That’s not always an option when you are in the middle of treatment. But there are things we can do to help reduce that stress. One of the most beneficial things for me during and post treatment has been meditation.
Meditation seemed pointless and even caused stress for me when I had tried it before. You want me to sit still and not think of anything? Now all I’m doing is stressing about how much I’m thinking about trying to not stress! I had the typical "it’s not for me" response or "I’m too much of a go go go person to sit still that long". So is everyone, that’s why we need meditation. A quote I really love is if you can’t find 10 minutes to meditate you need 30. Meditation is not just about sitting still with 0 thoughts in your mind. That is A goal but it is not THE goal. To me, meditation is just about slowing down and becoming aware. To be aware of my thoughts, feelings and what I really want and need. Think of the times where you had just woke up and are immediately bombarded with questions. Maybe it’s from a parent, a child or a partner. It almost sounds like they are speaking another language. Take a shower and have a cup of coffee and then get asked the same questions and you realize they weren’t nearly as difficult as you remember.
Meditation clears that fog and chatter so we can think clearly. It’s like someone finally shut off that car alarm that won’t stop honking outside and now you can get back to work. It brings us back to the present moment and allows us to process what is really happening instead of living in regret for the past or fear of the future. Very rarely are we in as much pain and chaos as we make it out in our minds. We have never suffered anything as bad as what we anticipated something we fear will be like. At the vipassana they give an example of someone in Myanmar who gets hit in a car accident and the other driver doesn't take responsibility. They have to go to court for damages. The court system is slow and it takes years as it moves up to the proper court. For years that person worries about what the decision will be. Finally they get a decision and the other driver is 100% at fault. They have to pay for the damages but the court can't fix the years of unnecessary stress caused by worrying about what the decision will be. Even if the decision went the other way it wouldn't be as big of a punishment as spending years concerned and stressed.
As cancer patients, how much time have you spent worrying about if the cancer will spread? How much time have you spent worrying about a bad lab result? How much time have you spent worrying about a complication? But what happens when those fears actually happen? You deal with them and move on! It’s never as bad as we expect it to be. Our minds are so powerful and dictate how we see and interact in the world. To have a clear and calm mind makes everything else around us clearer and calmer. This is so necessary to keep us as strong as possible during treatment. This is how we cut down on stress by clearing our minds to see things for how they really are and not for what we fear they will become.
Start off slow and easy and work your way up. Start with just 5 minutes in the morning after you wake up. This is a time before the stresses of the day start to build up so it may be easier to find relaxation during this time. Sit up and cross your legs in front of you. If this is a difficult posture to be in try sitting on pillows to raise your hips up off the ground until your knees are pointed down. You can even put pillows under your knees for support. Close your eyes and really focus on slowing down. Become aware of what is going on in your mind without judgment or trying to label what you are feeling. Have a look at what thoughts you are thinking for a minute and then let them go. I like to visualize myself sitting in front of a river and when there is a thought in my mind I want to let go I simply put it on a raft and let it float down the river out of my view. If your mind is too active to let these thoughts go it’s better to focus on your breathing. You can say in your mind “IN” as you take a deep breath in and “OUT” as you slowly let it back out. Again, meditation is not as much about having no thoughts as it is about having control over what you are thinking of. Saying in and out does not take a lot of thought. Another method is box breathing. As you take a deep breath in you slowly count to four. When you get to four you stop and hold that breath in while you count to four again. Then you release for four seconds and hold with empty lungs for four seconds and repeat. If you are counting and focused on your breath it is near impossible to be thinking about anything else. With training and practice it gets easier and more comfortable. Try these meditation techniques any time you are feeling stressed. Better yet, do them before you go into something you feel will be stressful so you are better equipped to handle that stress.
With consistent practice you will gradually notice the chatter in your head is a little less. That those things that used to annoy you don't bother you as much. That you get some clarity on how you feel and are less reactive. That you make decisions based on reason instead of anger, fear or confusion. You can either learn to control your mind or your mind will control you.