Wound a Bit Tight? Meditating with Muscle Release

I, like so many people, keep a lot of tension in my neck and shoulders. Some days it feels as though my neck is made of steel, but not in a good way.

The reality is that I don’t even realize how tight those muscles are until I lie down and try to relax.

So I have made a meditation of this for bedtime. Instead of focusing on the sensation of my breath, the focus is on releasing the tension in my neck and upper shoulders.

It may sound like I would not be able to squeeze an entire meditation session out of this, but oh, I can.

Complete release takes focus!

Lying down on my back I inhale, and then with the exhale, I focus on my neck and relax it, releasing the rest of my body along with it. With the following exhale, I do that again. That’s because while I may think that the initial release took care of the tension, there is still tightness there and I really have to work on it mentally to release that.

It’s as though my neck muscles are springs that I can stretch, releasing tension through the exhale, but once I let go (inhale) the “memory” in my muscles tightens them up again.

It helps to imagine my body melting, as if I’m being drawn downward into the Earth.

I can keep going like this, feeling my chin inch slightly towards my chest as the tension releases. Melting into the mattress. The more I release, the more subtle the sensation, yet very satisfying. The more I relax, the more deeply I breathe and everything lets go.

The awareness of what is going on in my body helps so much, but the tension is tenacious. This is not surprising, given how much mental weight my neck and shoulders bear. So it is a dance between releasing and returning to release again. Little by little until I eventually fall asleep.

Launching into Space: A Visualization for Creating Distance

In my continuing quest to find ways to calm myself and soften anxious thoughts, I often resort to visualizations. They are effective in putting the breaks on distressing thought patterns, creating space and encouraging a broader perspective.

My clinical counselor offered the visualization I’m introducing here. It works similarly to “thought container“, which is a visualization in which you create a container for your stressful thoughts, put them in there, lock the container up and place it on a shelf.

You decide how you’d like your rocket to look. Serious and foreboding or cute and shiny?

However, this one goes a step further. For this visualization, imagine a shiny space capsule on a launch pad, of whatever style and era that suits you. Gather up your troubling thoughts and send them towards the capsule, marching them up the ramp and in through the door. You can wave good-bye as the thoughts enter and settle into comfy seats, safely belted in.

Your thoughts are not “bad”. They simply elicit negative reactions in your body. And right now you want to loosen their grip on you.

When all those stressful images are inside, close the airlock/door. It’s up to you how that’s going to look. Perhaps it’s a high-tech electronic door that shuts and locks remotely so you don’t have to be close by. Or maybe it looks like a massive bulkhead, with a wheel that you yourself physically crank shut and secure so that you can be sure that nothing slips out.

When the capsule is secured. Start the countdown to launch. Or just press a button and shoot it off into space immediately. You have full control here.

But here’s the thing: this is a visualization to create distance, not to completely eradicate those thoughts. Because that’s impossible. They will not simply disappear. However, you can give yourself a little break from them, which is what this lauch is about.

Your stressors are still there, but it’s easier to learn to deal with them from down here. Give yourself some space.

Where does the capsule go? To the Moon. It will rocket off the Earth and land on our satellite neighbor. Point your telescope at the Moon at night and you’ll see the capsule, knowing that those thoughts are there but far enough away that they don’t torment you. You’re not trying to forget about them completely. Instead, practice dealing with them where they’re not an in-your-face threat.

In this way, you don’t repress or avoid, you give yourself breathing space and the opportunity for calm.

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I admit that if you’ve been particularly beleaguered by stressors, it would be very tempting to treat the rocket like a clay pigeon and blast the whole thing to bits…and maybe there’s a great idea for a video game there. But truly, it may be easiest to handle them by releasing the thoughts into the ether.

Yes, they’ll be back. And so will the chance to take a deep breath and send them off again.

“Where Am I?”

I have a problem. And if you’ve been reading this blog, that statement won’t surprise you.

My thoughts take me for a ride and it’s a wild one. I’ve gone from being perfectly calm one minute…and the next minute gesturing wildly, face screwed up, whisper-arguing with a person who is not there. I can feel agitation in my belly and an increase in breathing and heartrate.

The story takes off.

I have a solo argument with an invisible adversary. Sometimes it’s someone I know, rehashing past hurts; other times it’s an imaginary situation that my brain concocted, a fear of the future. Regardless, there is always some form of negative state change involved.

When my mind starts creating stories, it’s hard not to jump on board the train and get taken for a ride.

In the past, I would have barreled along like a runaway freight train, exhausting and unnerving myself. It became a habit, like an itch I needed to scratch. It was so hard to stop those thoughts once the train started rolling along.

Mindfulness changed that, but it took time to develop awareness. I learned to ask one very simple question of myself as soon I realize that I’m being swept away by that torrent of brain activity.

Three simple words: where am I?

This works like magic for me. It’s instant grounding.

That’s because the train screeches to a halt and I shake off the mental noise and look around myself. I’m usually somewhere alone. There’s often some far away street hum or something else not very intrusive. I feel where my body makes contact with whatever surface I’m on.

As soon as I poke my head out from the noise, I realize that I’m on the train. And I get off.

I am HERE. And in this moment, I am safe. Regardless of all the thoughts that suggest otherwise, I am safe.

It doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems that will need solving or work that needs to be done. But all that noise that was panicking me just a bit ago? I am reminded that it doesn’t exist right now. And right now is the only moment that matters.

Three simple words. Man, if I’d known this years ago, I could have saved myself so much heartache. But at least I know now. And now, so do you.

The Benefits of Physical Activity During Cancer Treatment and How to Begin

While this isn’t exclusively an exercise blog, if you’ve perused my posts you’ve probably noticed that I’m a huge proponent of exercise for both cancer patients and survivors (well, actually for everyone; but see my important message at the bottom of this post).

The best way to achieve this is to start exercising right now, if you are not yet, no matter what stage of the cancer experience you’re in.

There is a growing body of research that shows the benefits of exercise for cancer folk (I’ve written about it here). But the fact is that only about 17-37% of cancer survivors meet the minimum physical activity guidelines set out by the American Cancer Society (Hirschey et al., 2017, Cancer Nurs) even though doing so reduces the risk of cancer recurrence by 55%, not to mention the improvement in quality of life (Cannioto et al., 2021, J Natl Cancer Inst).

Exercise, the Cancer Fighter. In the not too distant future, your oncologist might hand you an exercise prescription as part of your cancer treatment.

Now, there is a call to include exercise as an adjuvant therapy for cancer for those who are currently undergoing chemotherapy. During the Oncology session of the 7th International Congress of the Spanish Society of Precision Health (SESAP) that took place in Spring 2022, Adrián Castillo García, a researcher at the Barcelona Biomedical Research Institute (IIBB) of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), reviewed recent studies regarding the benefits of exercise during cancer treatment, including the potential role that it had in “modulating the tumor microenvironment and immune function.”

You can read a synopsis of his statements here in the section entitled “Exercise as Oncological Therapy” (starting towards the bottom of page 2). Castillo states that physical exercise “has been shown to have the ability to modulate the tumor environment… . This modulating effect translates into an improvement in the efficacy of chemotherapy and other oncological treatments.”

Castillo goes on to say that “prescribing doses of physical activity at an established intensity and volume can be very decisive in combating the tumor microenvironment, but this preliminary evidence must be confirmed in trials on humans to ratify the role of exercise as a treatment capable of improving the efficacy of the main therapies.” (All quotes from the aforementioned synopsis.)

With such promising results, it’s quite possible that future cancer treatments may be a combination of medicine and physical activity.

Ok, so say that you are not an avid exerciser, but motivated by these studies you’re willing to give regular exercise a go. What do you do when you’re already feeling fatigued from treatments?

I wrote about this here, but in a nutshell, the idea is that you need to decide what the right starting point is for you, and this will depend on your previous experiences, both physical and emotional, with a physical activity program. It will also depend on what you can manage at any given time in your treatment.

Starting an exercise program? Make it something that you can do and enjoy, and it will become a life-long habit.

Ask yourself, “what is reasonable for me?” But don’t respond to that with a t-shirt slogan-type answer (“Exercise? I thought you said extra fries?!?”) that immediately shuts down the idea. Admittedly, there may be times during treatment that getting yourself to the toilet without help is a momumental achievement. But that will pass. And exercise will make you feel more in control of your health and better overall.

IMPORTANT: Find what you can do and then do it as consistently as you can.

This may mean starting very simply [always get your doctor’s okay first!]. Choose an activity, duration and frequency, say, brisk walking for 20 minutes a day, three days a week. Follow that pattern for two weeks, then add to it–perhaps another 10 minutes–not to overwhelm yourself, but simply to push the edge a bit (you can always ease off if you need to, give it a week and increase again). If possible, increase some aspect of your program every couple of weeks, as it suits your condition. In the example of walking, incorporate a flight of stairs and gradual upper body movements: first pumping the arms, then hand weights, eventually strength training for both upper and lower body.

The timing is up to you.

If a walking program feels too easy for you, train at a higher level, but remember that the same concepts still apply: (1) consistency, (2) progression, (3) balance in your activities. If you’re interested, read my post about my three “pillars” of fitness.

Most importantly, start, progress gradually and keep it up for the rest of your life.

If your starting point is a standstill, this will take patience. But I PROMISE you, no matter what you can muster, it will still be better than doing nothing.

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I know I already said this, but it bears repeating, especially for cancer patients and survivors: do not start any exercise program without consulting with your medical team first. While I feel that improving your physical fitness is one of the best things you can do for yourself, every body is different and every cancer situation is different. Talk to your doctor and let them know what you’re planning to do.

Being in Your Body: A Mindfulness Visualization

I came across a delightful mindfulness visualization on the Calm meditation app, presented by meditation teacher Jeff Warren who credits his teacher, Dan Clurman, with relating the idea of this exercise.

It is an effective and immersive way to ground yourself into the present moment with the emphasis on being in your body.

Imagine that your body is an hour glass and that the falling sand brings awareness as it fills the glass, from the bottom up.

Imagine that you are an hourglass and your awareness is the cool sand that falls from above. First, bring your awareness down into your feet and ankles, feeling into the sensations there, filling up not only that part of your body, but also inviting attention into the space between your feet and around them at the bottom of the hourglass. Feel the level of your awareness rise.

Now invite your awareness to fill up your legs, while still keeping attention on your feet and ankles. Notice how the level of these “sands of awareness” travels up and fills out the space up to your hips. Feel into how that feels, not trying to change anything, but simply noticing any sensations.

In this way, continue to work your way upwards, allowing these “sands” to gradually fill up your body as they empty from your mind. Allow the swirling thoughts to release and drop down to light up your lower limbs, your entire torso, your arms and shoulders little by little. Maintain awareness of the parts of your body that have awakened already, so that as you move along in this way, the sensations in your body build and you feel the liveliness of the present moment in them.

Finally, coming to the top of your head, feel into all the sensations vibrating through your entire body, perhaps gentle tingling in your feet and legs or a subtle pulsing in your arms and hands. Maybe the awareness of movement through your intestines, the beating of your heart and even the areas where your body makes contact with the surface that supports it.

In this way, you bring the whole of your body into the present, not focusing on just one part, but on everything that makes up your physical presence, and also the space around your physical presence, while at the same time relieving your mind of the pressures exerted by thinking. As your body fills, your mind empties and thoughts are replaced by a sense of peace and well-being.

I’ve tried this a number of times and found it to be both grounding and uplifting simultaneously and an effective way to bring myself out of my head and into the here and now. If you’re looking for a different way of engaging in a body scan, give it a try.

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Please note that a form of this meditation appeared on the Calm app on April 29, 2022, as an installment of Jeff Warren’s Daily Trip.

While I am a subscriber to Calm, I do not receive compensation for writing about the app. I am simply a very satisfied user.

Another Dual Focus Meditation: Engaging the Ears

In my ever-continuing quest to maintain my concentration during meditation, I’m constantly exploring different points of focus. My go-to still remains the breath, but I’ve written about sharing that spotlight with focus on sensations in the hands as part of a dual focus meditation.

More recently, however, I’ve incorporated more of the senses into my meditation practice (I mean, we have five so why not?).

Urban sounds can provide a constant din that can be used with the breath as a dual focus sensory practice.

In between the inhales and exhales, there’s space during which I’m notoriously susceptible to distractions. Lately, I’ve been working with sounds. I live in the city on a busy street and there’s rarely a lack of noise, so in the lulls between my breaths, my ears turn on and absorb the sounds transpiring outside my window.

The trick with sounds, however, is to allow them to simply be interpreted as tones and refrain from being drawn into naming them. A siren runs the risk of eliciting thoughts of “where’s the fire?” or similar scenarios. For this to work, it’s important to engage our “beginner’s mind” — our brains are quick to match familiar sounds with a story — and divorce the sounds from associations that we’ve made over the years.

If simply shuttling between breath and sound provides enough fodder for concentration, this might not be an issue.

In that case, street noise can be an effective anchor for its variability, its high tones and low tones, as the passing of cars may morph into ocean wave-like sounds.

Meditation music and meditative sounds abound on the internet. Hunt around and you will find a plethora of offerings to use as a focal point.

However, if urban noises are either too intermittent or too difficult to resist spinning tales around, there are many other options for ambient sounds that will work for purposes of meditation. It’s no surprise that platforms like YouTube have a gazillion listings under “meditation music” that may fit the bill. In addition, apps like “myNoise” (and website myNoise.net) provide customizable background sounds to help mask outside noise and maximize ability to stay focused longer.

As the body moves with the breath, sound will remain in the background allowing attention to organically cycle between the two. From personal experience, I’ve learned that juggling between feeling into sensations in the body (breath) and being aware of sounds coming through my ears results in really turning down the dial on my Monkey Mind, which seems to fade to the distance. This dual focus can close the gap through which mind chatter might otherwise intrude.

If you feel inspired, give it a try and let me know how it goes!

Two Simple Tips for Grounding Before Work

I wanted to share two little things that I do with my work setup to help ground me at the start of my day.

First, consider what’s in front of your eyes after your computer boots up? Choose a computer wallpaper to anchor you. Pick a calming scene, one that’s meaningful enough to tweak your emotional state. This is going to be different and personal for everyone. It might be random nature scenes, photos of people you care about, photos from places that you’ve visited, abstract images that you find peace-inducing and the like.

I have this image as my computer wallpaper and imagine how nice it would be to pet her when things at work get rough.

As an example, I currently have the head of a beautiful black panther poking out through lush green leaves as my background. The photo is highly detailed and when I look close at it, I am drawn in by the soft fur around her face, I imagine what it would feel like to scratch her behind the ears and “boop” her on the nose, even imagine her purring in whatever way panthers purr. This wallpaper allows me to slip away into big cat fantasies for a few seconds when I need a break, using all my senses to imagine what it would be like to interact with her.

It’s not just about finding the right image, however. While I currently use this panther as my grounding and relaxation anchor, if I go through a particularly stressful period of time where there’s a lot of anxiety at work, I will change the background to something different after the stress subsides.

Why? Humans tend to be visual creatures and we make strong associations that we’re not always aware of. If you’ve been looking at the same image while you’re close to having panic attacks, it’s time to change the image. Trust me on this one–it has to do with associative learning (think Pavlov’s dogs, except without the salivation).

I did this after going through cancer treatment. Done with chemo? Changed the background. Finished up radiation and herceptin? Changed the background. As much as I liked the backgrounds I was using, it felt great to get something fresh up on my monitors. It felt like a new start and I really needed that.

The second tip I have is equally simple and has the added benefit of being helpful in terms of computer security .

Find a phrase that makes you feel good? Turn it into the passphrase that you type every morning!

Change your password to a passphrase that inspires you or calms you. How would it feel to recite an affirmation or words of encouragement when you log into your work computer every morning? Make it so. It could be an expression of self-worth (iAM-D3$ervinG0fLoVe), a reminder to stretch (r0llY*ur$hou1d3rs) or any other positive phrase (th1s2$hallP@ss-Justbr3@the). It might be that little thing you need to give your day a teensy push in a positive direction.

For additional cyber-protection, stick in a word from another language –perhaps the sanskrit version of your favorite yoga pose?

The above tips are not earth-shatteringly novel concepts, but they are remarkably effective. Give them a try and see if they make your day a little more bearable.

Victims of Our Own Success: Premature Aging in Cancer Patients and What You Can Do About It

So this isn’t the kind of news you want to see. But there’s still hope…

A scientific journal article from 2017 (Cupit-Link et al., 2017, ESMO Open) describes the toll that cancer treatments can take on the patients subjected to them.

After being told you have cancer and deciding to proceed with the treatments that will offer you the best chance of survival…it’s disheartening to learn that many of those same treatments can accelerate aging, causing damage to your DNA, heart disease, hearing loss, cataracts, liver and kidney diseases, brittle bones, lowered immune response and other cancers (!) among other issues, depending on the type of cancer and treatment (see WebMD article).

The treatments that can save our lives from cancer may hasten our demise from age-related factors.

This is a problem resulting, ironically, from the success of treatments and extended lifespan of cancer survivors. Back when cancer was deadly with a low survival rate, no one was too concerned about the state in which survivors were left in; simply surviving the cancer was enough. Now that people are beating their cancers at greater rates, quality of life has become a much bigger issue.

While the most striking detriments are seen in childhood cancer survivors, accelerated aging occurs in most former cancer patients.

Doctors and researchers are taking note. At the time of this scientific article’s publishing in Dec 2017, there was already discussion on how to “de-escalate” cancer treatments as a way to decrease the amount of cellular damage to patients.

On a personal level, I chose an effective drug for my HER2+ breast cancer (Herceptin) over a more effective drug (Perjeta) that carried a risk of greater cardiotoxicity. I made that decision because although I was terrified of cancer, I was also afraid of what lasting effects the drug would have on me once the treatments were over.

Cancer treatments are strong but healthy living can help mitigate their negative effects.

But even if you didn’t have the opportunity to make such a choice, there’s still something that you can do. The authors of that 2017 paper noted that cancer survivors can take back some control over their health by adopting or continuing those healthy lifestyle habits that should sound familiar by now: not smoking, limiting alcohol, exercising regularly and eating a healthful diet.

To that, I would also add, managing your stress levels, the importance of which has been demonstrated on a cellular level, and getting optimal amounts of sleep.

Improving longevity is a hot field for research as scientists work to determine what aspects of one’s lifestyle show the greatest promise in keeping the body young. This topic is complex and new data is coming in on a regular basis, so I won’t delve into details here, but it stands to reason that being sedentary and eating a high-sugar, high-processed diet is not going to do you any favors.

Just as cancer treatments may have a negative effect on overall health, you can win back some lost ground by making healthy, informed decisions on diet and exercise. No one wants to limit their cancer treatment options, so this is one form of insurance that you can give yourself. No matter what else happens, a healthy lifestyle will benefit your quality of life. And that is an improvement that is yours to keep.

Making Space Through Breath: A Visualization

I’ve posted previously about the sensations I’ve experienced in the midst of anxiety, as if the stressor is right in my face, raw and unescapable.

Combatting this feeling has been my number one priority, since anxiety overtakes me before I even know it, triggering my fight-or-flight response. Once my sympathetic nervous system gets going, getting it “back in the box” can be difficult, possibly taking days, depending on the intensity of the stressor.

Anxiety can make us feel like we’re trapped and suffocating.

My current strategy is to create protective distance for myself in a very simple way. And it consists of visualizing an expansion of the space around my body.

It goes something like this: Imagine you are inside a deflated balloon. If you are experiencing tighteness in your head or chest, this serves as an effective analogy, particularly if your balloon is constricting you. Without letting your mind be consumed by the tightness, allow yourself to acknowledge the stressor that surrounds you.

Then, taking a deep breath in, exhale through pursed lips and inflate that space around you. Imagine how it feels to expand the balloon and release that clinging sensation. Feel the fresh air moving against your skin as the space around you continues to broaden.

Maybe you begin with the area around your head first, as if creating a bubble around it allows oxygen to flow freely, then move the expansion towards the torso, protecting and releasing the heart, lungs and other vital organs.

Or perhaps begin with the chest if that’s where the constriction feels greatest. Anxiety can squeeze your breath, so focus on mentally removing that weight from your sternum and ribs, visualizing an expansion of the free space around your chest with a deliberate slowing of breath. This takes some work, a back-and-forth between imagining space expanding around you and your breath taking advantage of the room that it has.

Breathe, expand and feel the space!

If your chest is mired too deeply in anxiety, turn your attention to your extremities, starting with the feet and hands, getting a foothold there and allowing the sensation of space to move slowly towards the center of your body.

The idea is to E-X-P-A-N-D the space around you, dispelling the feeling of closeness and suffocation that results in the wild urge to flee. Note that this is not avoidance of the stressful situation. You are acknowledging its existence…and then creating room so that your brain has space and time in which to think, to know that it’s protected from words and sensations and fearful possibilities. To know that it’s safe in the “now”.

Try this the next time you have a quiet moment. As with many of these techniques, it is helpful to practice in times of calm, to feel into what that sensation of space feels like. The more we practice, the clearer and more familiar that sensation becomes, and we can draw upon that feeling during stressful times.

Putting a Hold on Looking for Trouble

Last year at this time, I feared that I had heart issues based on what I had read about some of the cancer medications that I had been on, so I went to the cardiologist and they administered some tests. When I came back to the cardiologist to discuss results with the doctor, I was told that they had found “something” in the echocardiogram and Holter monitor readings.

But I still had questions, so I had a consultation with the cardiac nurse, who went through everything with me.

In the back of my mind, there’s a fear that my body is harboring serious health problems.

And it turns out that while they did find “something”, it wasn’t really anything out of the ordinary, beyond normal wear and tear. I was assured that my heart was very strong and healthy and I could continue to push through high-intensity workouts.

Still, it was recommended that I get checked out again this year.

But you know what? I’m not going right now. It felt like anxiety about the scans and then waiting for the results did worse things to my heart than whatever I might have been already experiencing.

I talked this over with my oncologist, who agreed.

The fact is, there are things that you need to get checked out, especially as a cancer survivor. But for other things, especially without a specific indication that there’s something wrong, you are simply looking for trouble. And if you’re looking for it, you’re going to find it.

Our bodies are not perfect. And the older we get, the more aches, pains and abnormalities we have. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s anything “wrong” that immediately needs to be fixed.

For now, I’m halting my search for trouble and taking the time to breathe deeply and just live.

Anxiety was the driver for me to get tests run. I was overreading about everything that could possibly go wrong–given the medications that I had been taking–and then rushing out to make sure that it hadn’t yet in the hope that I could rectify any budding issues.

And to be fair, there are still things that I could look at, still specialists I could contact. But perhaps I need to chill a bit…

…but perhaps I need to chill a bit. If it were to progress, would I stop exercising? Absolutely not. So then perhaps it’s best to take a wait-and-see approach for now.

All of this is so different from cancer, which drives us to seek treatment immediately. I am forever primed to worry about what might be happening in my body. But I also recognize this as a psychological side effect of cancer. I can’t let fear take over the rest of my life.

So for me, it’s time to stop looking for trouble, stop fearing for the future and simply relax and enjoy what’s happening in the present moment.