I’ve written before many times about different “grounding” techniques. Grounding is what helps move us out of the chatter in our heads and brings us into the present moment, where we can pause and realize that we are safe. It helps put space between our ourselves and both fears about the future and regrets about the past that may unnecessarily cloud our minds.
On days like those, I need to fine-tune my focus. This calls for a grounding technique that won’t be as easy to derail.
Body scans are some of my favorite grounding and calming go-tos. But recently, I was introduced to tracing the outline of the hand with your mind, a focus on just one part of the body. I tried this and found that it worked brilliantly!
Just like when, as a child, you started a drawing using the outline of your hand by placing it on a piece of paper and tracing the around your fingers with a pencil, you can do the same thing mentally. Imagine the sensation of a point of pressure (say, an invisible crayon) moving up your wrist to the outside of your pinkie, around the fingertip, and down the other side into the hollow between the fingers…and doing the same as it moves up and down each finger until it ends up on the outside of the thumb and travels back down the wrist.
What makes this so effective for me is that it is a simple visualization that requires a bit more concentration, and yet it is still uncomplicated. That means that it gives my monkey mind a little extra to focus on, but not so much that it becomes a struggle.
Try it next time you need grounding and want to trying something different.
REMINDER: Be nice to other cancer patients and survivors.
It feels weird to write that, because why wouldn’t you? So many of us who have had the cancer experience feel like we want to support and encourage those who come after us. We are driven to help. But that’s not always what happens.
Let me provide an analogy of sorts:
When I was pregnant with my first child, a daughter, I got an enthusiastic positive response from so many other moms. Everyone was ready with helpful tips and good wishes. At the same time, many also started in with stories of their own experiences, often times telling vividly about their struggles and pain and even, “Oh, girls are the absolute worst!”
Why would some women do this? I can only hazard a guess: perhaps because no one wants to listen to difficult stories. Childbirth is a momentous life event brimming with intense emotions that friends and family forget, but the mother in question holds on to because they are tied into so much of her. Her lingering feelings are brushed aside. No one else cares to revisit the labor pains or complications. As a result, tales of the experience are often not expressed until she sees another woman, a kindred spirit, embarking on the same journey.
So, too, with cancer. And it can be a difficult and awkward subject for many, cancer patients or not. Those of us who are breast cancer survivors may want to “talk about it”, and thankfully there are support groups for that. But friends and family may not understand the scope of the emotional fallout. We get comments like, “well, at least you got a nice set of boobs out of it,” and are expected to move on. Conversation over.
And then we see another woman going through this, and it’s difficult to resist inundating her with your own experiences and emotions, all in the name of letting her know that she can get through this, just like you did.
Does it help? Maaaaybe? But as we all know, everyone’s experience is different. What happens is that you’re not “preparing” her for what might come. You’re inducing anxiety in an already stressed-out situation.
I experienced this myself after my diagnosis, when, a week before my surgery, I ran into an aquaintance who had gone through breast cancer treatment several years before. And I know she was trying to offer support and make me feel better, but it didn’t. She made me anxious about my upcoming therapies, including ones that she not gone through herself. While my intent as a newbie was to share about my diagnosis because I felt that she would understand, I ended up being a sounding board for her concerns. Concerns that were valid, definitely, but not appropriate in the context of a very fearful cancer patient.
For the record, this was a lovely woman with whom I’ve had numerous subsequent exchanges. There was no ill-will intended. But it’s likely that she didn’t have many opportunities to speak to relate her story to other women, and given the chance, just needed to talk.
And I know that in my exhuberance to show support for other cancer patients, I’ve probably tripped over myself in an attempt to reassure too much. Offer too many hugs. While also trying to be noncommital about outcome. That’s a really messy combination.
So please, let us remember (and by “us” I mean myself!) that sometimes the best form of support for a newly diagnosed cancer patient is simply being there with them and holding space for what they may be going through. They will make their way through the experience, day by day, just like we did. There will be time to talk about the ups and downs of treatments.
Lately I’ve been speaking with people who are having a hard time dealing with anxiety, so I thought it would be worthwhile to dive deeper into grounding methods.
For me, hands down, strong neutral physical sensations (with “neutral” being the operative term here) are by far the best ways to pull my head out of swirling thoughts and get back to where I am now on the Earth.
Currently, I’m focusing on touch points: those places on your body where you are making contact with any surface. This is highly effective because it is well-suited for any situation. You don’t necessarily need to be in a particular position, nor do you need a quiet space. So if you’re in the middle of an exam, sitting in your boss’ office, standing at a podium or walking down the hallway of a hospital, this grounding method can shift you back to the present moment.
The idea is to focus on the sensation of pressure. My suggestion would be to bring your attention to whereever on your body you can sense that contact with a surface, giving preference to places further from areas that might be reinforcing anxiety, such as the chest region and a rapidly beating heart. So, hands, feet and buttocks would be good candidates. If you’re walking, then pay attention to the change in pressure of your steps as you put your foot down and lift it again.
Feel into these body parts, sensing how the pressure feels against them. You can also bring in sensations such as tingling and temperature. Like an investigator, experiencing these sensations as if for the first time, get curious about their quality. If needed, squeeze the muscles, but then make sure to relax them too, so that you’re not clenching. Then see if you notice a difference in sensation.
Try it right now. Go ahead, I’ll wait…
Did you try it? And did you feel anything? The type of sensation doesn’t matter here. The main goal is to get out of your head, which may be in overdrive. Paying attention to what your body is doing RIGHT NOW helps move you away from thoughts of dread and gives you a handle on your reactions.
Important: as with all calming techniques, this takes practice. It is not a one-time thing that you try, nor is it a pill that you pop and everything settles down. The more you practice this, especially when you’re in a peaceful surroundings, the better you will get at shifting your focus during times of anxiety. Just as with a formal meditation practice, it is consistency that will improve your focus and thereby your abilities.
The added benefit to practice is that you will realize you *can* do it, that it *does* work, and you will build confidence in yourself that you can handle it. So in an anxious moment, you’ll be able to say, “I got this” and bring yourself to a more manageable place.
I am always looking for ways to illustrate the complexity of emotions associated with having cancer, or caring for someone who does, as a means of relating it to people without this experience.
An immersive video game called That Dragon, Cancer does this by telling the story of a young child with the disease, in this case, a brain cancer called Atypical Teratoid Rhabdoid Tumor (AT/RT). The game explores the fear, hope, helplessness and fight that we go through when confronting so much uncertainty.
To be clear, this is not a video game in the usual sense, it’s a narrative with mini-game elements, sometimes lighthearted, sometimes dark. We follow the journey of a family as they navigate the rollercoaster of cancer diagnosis, doctor appointments and treatments. Those of us who have been on this path can relate to the tsunami of emotions and information, all rolled up into one overwhelming ball. The game does a good job of representing these feelings.
If you’re interested in experiencing this game with a blind playthrough, this is where you should stop reading. For more information on That Dragon, Cancer, visit the official website here.
WARNING/SPOILER: Because this is a true story, the developer Ryan Green (Numinous Games), along with his wife Amy, could not control the outcome; the game was created to honor the memory of their young son, Joel, by chronicling his battle with terminal childhood cancer.
Be aware that there are very distressing parts to this game. Just as cancer patients fight for meaning and claw for hope, so does this family. If you are not in the right frame of mind for this, or are at a painful part of your cancer journey, it might be best to skip this game. When the game originally came out in 2016, it left well-known YouTubers in tears. Everyone can relate to loss; Ryan and Amy made this even more powerful by documenting their son’s journey in recordings made during his treatments. Therefore, when you hear the distressed cries of a young child in misery, those are Joel’s actual cries, and they are heartbreaking. But hearing his delighted giggles helps ease the pain.
It is all very raw and real.
Losing hope, or clinging to it in the face of insumountable odds, is documented here. The Green family hopes for a big miracle, with Ryan and Amy each heading towards the outcome in different ways: Amy is adamant that Joel will be healed while Ryan is riddled with doubt. There is a very strong Christian influence in this gamethat reflects the Green’s religious beliefs, with many references to God, Jesus and saving grace through prayer, so those whose beliefs differ may find this element foreign and possibly irritating, and they should decide whether it is appropriate for them. Nonetheless, the game is beautifully done with moments that will make you smile in between tearful episodes and there is value in experiencing it.
Those who expect a movie-style, “deus ex machina” happy ending may be left empty and unsatisfied, but I found the end to be uplifting, inviting in the acceptance of inevitability.
I’ve now played That Dragon, Cancer three times through. The emotions that it evokes are very familiar and I found this game cathartic and validating. As the Green family discovers, if someone succumbs to cancer, it does not mean that their faith was not strong enough. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about this disease, it is that cancer is not picky, it doesn’t care about your desires and it doesn’t play by the rules.
From the developer, Numinous Games: “An immersive narrative videogame that retells Joel Green’s 4-year fight against cancer through about two hours of poetic, imaginative gameplay that explores faith, hope and love.” $9.99 on Steam.
If you’re new to mindfulness meditation, you might have found it difficult to hold focus on your breath. But the reality is that you don’t need to be a beginner to struggle with this. There are some days that the mind refuses to be still and even a long-time meditator will find themselves carried away by thoughts.
In an effort to help keep my head here and now, I started paying attention to how it was that I lost focus. For me, it happens during the lull between breaths.
What is that lull? Well, there’s a very short, almost imperceptible pause between my inhale and exhale. I’m okay during that time because I can focus on the sensations in my chest and belly. That’s not the pause that gives me problems.
It’s after the exhale that I experience a longer pause before the next breath begins, especially if my breaths are slower and deeper, because my body doesn’t require another breath right away. And that’s when I’m more likely to “see something shiny” and my mind wanders off.
But I found that by focusing on my hands during this pause, I could keep my random thoughts at bay.
If you’re having focus issues and would like to try this, all you need to do is consider your focus as cyclic. First, with the inhale and exhale, focus on the breath sensation–choose wherever you feel the air movement most distinctly, such as the rising & falling of your chest, the rushing of air in and out of your nostrils, or similar. It will be different from person to person.
Next, during the pause between your breaths, turn your focus to the sensations in your hands and fingers. There may be some tingling or throbbing, or perhaps nothing discernable. That’s okay. Just see if there’s anything there that you can feel.
Then, when your next inhale begins, pay attention to the breath again.
It may sound like you’re jumping from one body part to another, but in reality the transition is very smooth. The focus on the hands gives you a place to go until the next breath returns, all the while keeping you present.
When I first tried this, I thought I was “cheating” because I wasn’t staying with the breath. And I had to remind myself that the purpose of this wasn’t to earn a gold star for being the best “focus-on-only-the-breath” meditator. It was to stay with whatever was happening “now”.
Allowing a slight change in focus when my mind is active keeps me present. Staying present calms me more effectively. And that helps me return to the meditation cushion day after day after day.
There is beauty in the stillness that we experience between breaths. This dual focus practice isn’t meant to pull us away from that. Rather, it gives us a focus for those days when the mind is active and easily distracted, and appreciating that stillness is not available to us.
Some time back I posted sleep researcher Dr. Matt Kelly’s TED Talk on sleep, which I highly recommend. Now, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) has issued a position paper which states unequivocally that “sleep is essential to health”.
As noted in the position paper, “Healthy sleep is important for cognitive functioning, mood, mental health, and cardiovascular, cerebrovascular, and metabolic health.” Anyone who has suffered through the daylight savings time change – that would be most of us – can tell you that even missing out on a single hour of sleep can leave you feeling off for a few days.
And many of us have likely had the experience of sacrificing sleep for school or work projects, adjusting to newborns, or other similar temporary situations, not to mention the occasional middle-of-the-night stress session.
But sleep disruption on a chronic scale has far-reaching repercussions, and has been “associated with an increased risk of mortality and contributes to both the individual risk and societal burden associated with several medical epidemics, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer.”
In particular, shift work has been associated with an increased risk of cancer, due to the persistent disruption of the body’s biological clock, as reported in a recent CDC blog post based on reviews by the National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Data came from both breast and prostate cancer surveys. [The CDC post does outline what shift workers can do to protect themselves.]
According to the AASM position paper, the consensus among different sleep-related organizations is that adults require at least 7 hours of sleep regularly, with the range being 7-9 hours. While this seems straightforward, one meta-analysis (Lu et al., 2017, Biomed Res Int) of 10 studies suggested that sleeping excessive amounts (over 9 hours) was linked to an increased risk of estrogen-positive (but not estrogen-negative) breast cancer for women. At the same time, Xiao et al. (2016, Sleep Med) found that short sleep duration was associated with triple-negative (but not estrogen-positive) breast cancer in black women as compared to white women, suggesting racial disparities in the data, so further research is needed.
Confusing? Yes, this is clearly an area that calls for more study. Some clarification came recently from the publication of the “Million Woman Study”. This was an extensive prospective multi-year study of women in the UK that, you guessed it, found no association between breast cancer and sleep of any duration (Wong et al., 2021, Sleep). Nonetheless, the authors did note some shortcomings of the study, so this question is likely to be revisited.
Take home message? Conflicting studies aside, everyone would agree that good sleep hygiene (see CDC recommendations) is important no matter what your cancer risk. With our lives running 24/7 and sleep schedules constantly being disrupted, we should take a clue from the animals who settle down as the evening begins, like clockwork. We might have advanced as a civilization, but we can’t get past the reality that when it’s dark out, it’s time to hit the sack.
I didn’t think I needed a video game to help me mediate.
In the description for “Playne” (on the Steam platform), the developer states that the game is designed to help you establish a meditation habit. While, I thought it would be uninteresting for someone who already had a solid habit, the reviews of the game were very positive and the concept seemed inviting, so I decided to give it a try.
I had no idea that it would have such an impact on the quality of my meditation. While I often listen to ambiances (such as through the “MyNoise” app and website) and use guided meditations (“Calm”, “Insight Timer”) or similar auditory cues (“Unwind”), what I didn’t have was a visual representation of my meditation practice as it progresses over time. “Playne” supplies that.
“Playne” has three modes: Story, Sandbox and Evolve. This post is about the Story mode, as that’s the one most people start out with and the one I’m currently working on. Sandbox allows to you build your own meditation spaces and Evolve can only be unlocked after 100 days of meditation (I’m still in the 50s).
The game starts out on a semi-barren island with only a tiny flame in a campfire, a stone lantern, several rocks and Sensei Fox to keep you company. There are both guided and unguided meditations to choose from and as you meditate everyday, the fire grows taller and seedlings sprout and grow. With consistency, you unlock different story chapters, which wise Fox relates, gain the ability to change the weather, and most importantly, grow the island into a beautiful meditation retreat. All it takes is patience.
You are given the ability to chose the length and type of your meditation. In addition, you can regulate inhales and exhales (the length of which you can designate) with a breath bubble, keep track of your meditation time with a minute-ring, enable a journaling option (known as “thought pages”, which you can either keep or burn in the fire if preferred), and mark each instance that you become aware that your mind has wandered (as I enthusiastically wrote about here). There are different places on the island to meditate, and as you accumulate more days, you not only get more weather options to chose from, but also access to elements such as birds, fireflies, Aurora Borealis and butterflies. These are quite lovely and make your “Playne” even more inviting.
Now for the potential downside: As much as I enjoy all the offerings, there are a few parts of the game that seem antithetical to mindfulness meditation. The game keeps track of “effort”, you gain “achievements” and note your “progress”. As do other meditation apps/games, “Playne” maintains a record of your streak, and depending on your settings, if you don’t log in to meditate with “Playne” on a given day, you run the risk of having the flame in the campfire go out. While I know that this is done to encourage daily meditation, it is also somewhat problematic, as the whole idea of mindfulness is non-striving. I feel that too much emphasis on achievement in the context of a meditation practice goes against being mindful of the present.
Being of a naturally competitive nature, I was reluctant to turn my practice into one where I would be clinging to achievements. Nonetheless, there are enough positives to this game, and it has benefited my practice so much, that I have been learning to let go. That in itself is a significant improvement!
Reservations aside, I am really impressed with the game. I will write about the Sandbox and Evolve modes when I get to them, and post more images as my “Playne” grows. Additionally, there is a virtual reality (VR) option that I am looking forward to playing with. For anyone starting out with meditation, “Playne” offers a solid platform from which to develop and maintain a consistent meditation habit.
In addition to “Playne”, I am also using other mindfulness media on a regular basis (my favorite ones are here). That makes for a lot of checking in with electronics, unfortunately. I’ve gotten to the point where I meditate about a half-hour to an hour-plus every day. While it’s a priority in my life, there are days that it’s a struggle to find time for it all. Introducing “Playne” has added to this, and the last thing I need more of in my life is stress.
Sometimes I combine “Playne” with other apps to take advantage of the “Playne” ambiance while doing my favorite guided meditations. More recently, however, I’ve also used “Playne” as a way to emphasize unguided meditation, and that has allowed my meditation practice to mature and expand beyond the confines of a computer program and into the rest of my day. That is one of the greatest benefits of this program and the main reason why I have found it so valuable.
Looks like visiting a cardiologist after stopping aromatase inhibitors for breast cancer was a good idea after all.
The letrozole (aromatase inhibitor) that I’d been taking has been associated with cardiovascular effects, and since I was feeling progressively worse from the medication, I wanted to make sure that everything checked out okay.
It seems like the American Heart Association (AHA) agrees with my concerns. An April 26, 2021 statement by the AHA underscored the complicated picture of cancer treatments, in this case hormonal therapies for breast and prostate cancer. As stated in the article by Okwuosa et al. (2021) published in Circulation: Genomic and Precision Medicine, “As patients with hormone-dependent cancers continue to live longer, CVD [cardiovascular disease] has emerged as a leading cause of mortality and morbidity among survivors of these cancers.”
Ironically, breast and prostate cancers are some of the most common cancers in women and men, in addition to having some of the most effective treatments. The number is of breast and prostate cancer survivors is growing. Part of the success of treatment is expressly due to the development of hormonal therapies for long-term (5-10 year) use. At the same time, the increase in CVD problems is a result of this success, because as cancer survivors age they experience greater amounts of age-related cardiovascular events than do non-cancer surivors.
So, what do you do when the treatment that’s increasing your chances of beating cancer may also be increasing your chances of a cardiovascular event? Isn’t that one of the many problems with cancer? If your treatment works well, then that opens the door to having it work “too enthusiastically”, possibly with long-lasting negative effects.
The AHA statement paper cited here stresses the importance of communicating with your oncological team about CVD risk factors and possibly requesting a referral to a cardiologist, having appropriate tests conducted (ECG/EKG, echocardiogram), and–in my opinion the most important thing the survivors themselves can do–modify lifestyle (diet, exercise, smoking cessation, etc.) to maximize your chances of a cardiovascular event-free survivorship.
While it may be frustrating to think of entering into an “out of the frying pan, into the fire” scenario with a potential leapfrog from cancer to CVD, nothing is written in stone. You can make an effort to protect yourself and avoid being a statistic. Focusing on healthy living will benefit you in many ways and is guaranteed to improve your life, no matter what your risks.
Link to the AHA statement: Okwuosa et al. (2021) Impact of Hormonal Therapies for Treatment of Hormone-Dependent Cancers (Breast and Prostate) on the Cardiovascular System: Effects and Modifications: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. Circ Genom Precis Med, DOI: 10.1161/HCG.0000000000000082
Note: this is another grounding technique, by which I mean a way to retain focus on what is happening in the “now” rather than getting lost in memories of the past, which we cannot change, or succumbing to fears about what may happen in the future. It’s not a woo-woo magical technique. It’s merely being mindful about what is currently taking place so that you can respond appropriately and maintain your composure.
During acute stress, we need to bring ourselves back to the present quickly. By doing so, we are able to clear our heads of the “what-ifs” and “you shouldas” that cloud our thoughts at those times.
But what’s the fastest way to do that? For me, it’s definitely focusing on the fingertips. Each fingertip has approximately 3,000 nerve endings, more than any other part of the body (except the most intimate). When you touch something, all those nerves start firing.
You can take advantage of this sensitivity to ground yourself.
This is what I do: I “steeple” my fingers (thumb against thumb, index finger against index finger, etc.) as if I were Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock contemplating a complex situation. The fingertip pressure immediately commands attention from my fearful mind in the same way that a boss displaying that hand gesture would command an employee’s attention. Taking deeper breaths, I rub my fingertips against each other in a circular motion. The movement enables the nerve endings on the fingertips to keep firing as the sensation continues. Or I can bounce my fingertips off each other, or keep them together but flex the fingers to create a pulsing motion.
Closing my eyes accentuates the emphasis on sensation and makes maintaining focus on it easier.
Yes, this seems so simple, but it’s also quite effective. By placing our focus on the fingertips, we take our attention away from more reactive parts of the body like the chest area, where the heart might be beating fast and ribcage expanding and contracting with rapid breathing. Feeling into those areas might only serve to reinforce the heightened emotions that we’re experiencing.
The hands lie further away from that commotion, and that distance between the chest and our fingertip sensations enables us, if even for a short while, to get some perspective. Think of it as the anxiety not being “in your face”.
Sometimes, when I close my eyes, all I “see” is that sensation of fingertip to fingertip, as if it’s the only thing that exists. I can play with this, imagining that I’m holding something between my hands, and that the sensation I feel is actually the feeling of that object against my fingers. It can be a pane of glass or even a beach ball. It all depends on what my brain is willing to accept at the moment. It’s a relaxing mental exercise.
As with many things related to mindfulness, it’s helpful to practice this fingertip pose when we’re in a relaxed and meditative state to connect the sensation to a feeling of calm, enabling it to serve as an anchor when our emotional seas are rough. The more we practice, the stronger that association, and the more effective the grounding response when we use this technique in the midst of anxiety.
Fun fact: body language experts consider steepled fingers to be an expression of confidence. That might be the little boost you need when you’re navigating a stressful event!
I’ve written before about being an imperfect meditator. There are days when the narrative running through my head is never-ending and refuses to be silenced.
However, I found something that helps while I was playing a meditation game called “Playne” (about which I’ll write in the future). One aspect of this game is that it allows you to mark the occurrence of a thought by clicking the mouse button.
As soon as you realize you’re not focused on your breath, you click the button, and the program makes a pleasant little noise.
As simple as this sounds, it has made a huge difference in my meditation practice. Not only does it help me recognize when I’ve drifted away, but that little sound is very effective at bringing me back to the breath. Instead of gradually floating back to breath awareness, I immediately wake up into the present moment.
It’s as if the sound plants a sonic flag at the point where realization hits and that speeds my return.
This is not unlike a meditation bell that sounds at regular intervals and invites you back into focus. However, the benefit from the sound in my meditation game comes from teaching self-awareness and presence, because I ring it when I myself identify the thought. In mindfulness meditation, we are taught to note the thought inside our head, but in my opinion, the sound helps it “stick”.
Over the past weeks, I’ve become quicker in releasing the thoughts and returning to the breath. The more I practice, the stronger the habit of regaining focus quickly becomes.
While it’s not feasible for me to hold all my meditation sessions within the confines of a game, I’ve found that there are other means of marking my thoughts. Clicking a retractable pen works similarly to the sound in “Playne”. The “click” is just enough to bring attention to itself without being disruptive
Other gadgets that can work? Anything that delivers a distinct sonic note. Tapping a hard surface with the edge of a coin would serve the purpose. Or a hand tally counter that one might use to count people coming through an entrance. A quick search of phone apps reveals a number of tally counter apps if you don’t have access to the handheld mechanical device.
But it’s important to remember that the point of this is not to get obsessed about how many thoughts you had during a particular meditation. What you want is a little sound, like a gentle beep or click, to make you more aware of the thought.
Next time you are finding it hard to focus on your breath, grab a pen, a coin, open an app on your phone…even snapping your fingers may serve as your thought marker. It may be that little extra something that helps you back to the present all that more quickly.