“Fly the Friendly Skies”?

What if the skies aren’t guaranteed to be friendly?

While I’ve not been a nervous flyer in the past, I’ve haven’t flown since 2005 (!) and I’m starting to feel unsettled about our upcoming trip. It’s going to be a cross-continental red-eye during which I’ll be Tetris-ing myself into a plane seat (I’m 5’11”) and trying to sleep upright. Then there’s that plane change in the wee hours of the morning, at a time when any sane person would be fast asleep.

After writing a post on the importance of sleep, I’m going to go against my own advice and really screw up my family’s sleep cycle. So there’s that. But I’m also feeling prickly about making it through security, finding storage room in the overhead compartments, making our connection on time, picking up the rental car and remembering how to get to my parents’ home on a few hours’ sleep.

Oh yeah, and hoping that the plane doesn’t drop from the sky. That’s a biggie.

Life: enjoy the flight.

For a cancer patient, plane flight is one of those things you’re supposed to avoid. While I’m well past “patient” stage, my white blood cell count remains abnormally low, so breathing recycled air in cramped quarters is a bit of a concern. Taking Tamoxifen brings with it a risk of deep vein thrombosis, which is associated with long plane rides, and I’ve been warned about breast cancer survivors developing lymphedema due to the changes in air pressure during airflight.

Okay, okay, okay, realistically none of that will cause me problems. And all those other worries about the trip? They only matter if I’m thinking about them. When I’m not thinking about them, they don’t exist (*crossing fingers*).

Of course, the risk remains. I can sleep calmly on the flight with 99.99% confidence that we’ll get to where we need to go without mishaps, but there is that 0.01% that hangs in the back of my mind. Whether or not I give it attention depends on me. My life is not going to be any better if I’m fretting about it.

Cancer is the same way. There is no guarantee that I’ll stay cancer-free and I have to live with the possibility of recurrence for the rest of my life. That is disconcerting, particularly to a card-carrying worrier like me, but when I detach from that and simply appreciate where I am, I find that my days are a lot brighter. So for both air travel and life, the best course of action is to sit back, relax and just enjoy the flight.

Pulling Back for a Broader View

The World Is Too Much with Us

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. –Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

William Wordsworth

At times, the manufactured world feels like it’s closing in on me. Admittedly, that’s not what Wordsworth meant when he wrote his famous sonnet, although his poem, written to protest the spiritual collateral of the Industrial Revolution, is sharply appropriate for describing our current relationship with Nature and how we’re mucking it up.

But I’m going to sidestep that for a second and draw a different parallel. Because as I get drawn into day-to-day worries, when I wallow through the weeds of common stressors, I miss the overall beauty of this Earth and the fact that I get to walk on it.

My anxieties seem all-encompassing and fill my field of view, although the reality is that I’m just a speck. That’s not to minimize the significance of what I’m feeling while I’m feeling it and how it affects me, but once in a while I need some perspective. When I pull back to take a wider view of things (say, like from the height of the International Space Station!), things look different.

It’s so much quieter up here. I think I’ll stay for a bit.

Away from the noisy hum of machines and the incessant jabbering of humans, Earth seems pretty peaceful and quiet, which I never get in a large city. There’s always some whirring or buzzing here, traffic on the street and planes overhead. Not even earplugs provide complete relief.

In the same way, there’s a lot of chatter in my head. It gets so overwhelming at times so I need to apply “mental earplugs”: a grounded seat, darkness, lengthened breaths.

Suddenly, I’m no longer dragged by the runaway freight train crashing about in the space between my ears. For a moment, on a small cushion, those things that seemed important float away in imaginary bubbles and, if only for a moment, everything is still.

Keeping Anxiety at Arm’s Length

These are the most difficult mental calisthenics I’ve ever done.

The most frightening part of anxiety for me is that when scary, intrusive thoughts hit, they are right in my face. It feels as though there is no buffer zone so they come at me fast. I am highly reactive — nausea, cold bowels, rapid breathing, sweating, buzzing head. No opportunity to pause and consider a response. I am thrown into “flight” mode.

I don’t get panic attacks the way others have described them: heart beating so hard it feels like it’ll burst out of your chest, or hyperventilation to the point of getting lightheaded, even passing out. But I still feel anxiety intensely and physically.

So my practice lately has involved allowing stressful thoughts into my line of sight, but softening them, so that they appear blurred and more distant.

I establish this by immediately focusing on my body sensations as soon as I’m aware of the physical sensations of anxiety. That means feeling down to where my skin touches my clothing and focusing on the sensation of pressure on my seat and feet (if sitting) or the entire length of my back (if lying down).

Once my attention in on my body, I revisit the stressful thought, but as if squinting with my “inner eyes”, sometimes looking at it from the side instead of head on. I acknowledge its presence, but fuzz out the details, and most importantly, I keep it at a distance from me so that I have some space. Then I bring in deep breaths, slowing them down and allowing them to calm me as much as possible.

This is not even remotely easy. On some level, I’m still reacting to the thought and do experience a fear of bringing it closer to me. But the soothing nature of the breath helps temper my reaction. I think of this as exposure therapy, a form of cognitive behavioral therapy, except where everything takes place inside my head.

Establishing the breath as a self-soothing “anchor” takes time and consistency in practice.

Lately, I’ve been having more success with this, particularly when I wake in the middle of the night, which is one of the most frightening times for me to experience runaway anxiety. This self-comfort would not be possible without established meditation and relaxation techniques — I’ve used the breath to soothe myself through cancer diagnosis and treatment, but the great majority of my meditation practice takes place when I am not stressed.

That fact, along with consistency in practice, has been critically important to me. In order for the breath to serve as an effective anchor, it must be recognized as one. And that means building up “anchor-like” peaceful associations over time so that the link is not easily broken.

None of this is a quick fix. But as with many things that are not quick fixes, the process of achieving success is part of the success itself. And that is a very reassuring thought.

Between the Past and Future: A Cancer Survivor’s Perspective

I attended a workshop on cancer and stress given by the social workers at my cancer center. Since I like to take advantage of every opportunity to explore what’s going on inside my noggin I was looking forward to the presentation, but I didn’t realize that I would be offered a curious vantage point at the same time.

Sitting in the front row as I always do, I was joined by a woman who was awaiting the results of her second breast tumor biopsy; her first had confirmed cancer but another tumor was discovered shortly thereafter.

She told me about her racing thoughts, lack of appetite, inability to sleep — all those symptoms of intense stress that I also experienced as I awaited diagnosis. How odd it was to revisit this through her, now that I had a comfortable seat on the other side of that experience.

I commiserated with her, briefly offering up my own experience, and assured her that some of the anxiety would mellow once she had a definitive diagnosis and accompanying treatment plan. That’s the only thing I assured her of, knowing the nature of cancer, but I hope it gave her comfort seeing how far I’d already made it on the cancer journey.

And then, ironically, I realized that the woman sitting directly behind me was someone I had sat next to during one of my chemo infusions in 2017. I re-introduced myself, and while she didn’t remember me, she said she’d been through so many chemo sessions that it was hard to differentiate one from the other.

When I met her in 2017, she had hair and a good dose of energy. We talked about our kids (hers were grown) among other things. She was being treated for lung cancer but we didn’t dwell on the particulars. That’s not generally what you talk about during chemo. You gravitate towards non-cancer topics.

Things don’t always turn out the way we predict they will.

But now, she wore a ball cap to cover her bare head and walked with a cane. She seemed frail and was accompanied by a caregiver — several years of cancer treatment, not to mention the cancer itself, will do that to you. I’m not sure what her prognosis was, but given what I knew about her and the fact that she was still doing chemo, it probably wasn’t favorable.

There I sat, trying to stay present, next to my past and in front of my potential future. I had the good fortune of surviving the one and a decent chance of escaping the other.

There is no crystal ball with which we can gauge the future, deciding whether or not we like it, and if not, opting out. So here’s to making the best of the time that we have.

Who Let That Monkey into the Courthouse?

My right heel has been hurting — for the past week I contemplated
claiming plantar fasciitis to get out of jury duty.

Okay, I knew that excuse wouldn’t fly, but I was stressed about getting pulled out of everyday life, with an already overfull plate, to do my civic duty. The more I thought about it, the more I worked myself up into a lather.

Mindfulness couldn’t cut through the noise in my sleep-deprived head. This agony of anticipation made several things crystal clear:

My nemesis. This monkey will pull your lungs out through your nose.
  1. I ruminate enough to rival a massive herd of cows. Hello, monkey mind! I’d been thrashing through all the unknowns, unfettered irritation and unfounded fears in my head. This was the monkey-on-my-back, screeching madly.
  2. My physiological reaction to even the anticipation of potential stress is out of control. Granted, this reaction was lubricated by a hefty pint of caffeinated coffee from the courthouse cafe. But when the voice over the loudspeaker called out names in alphabetical order, my heart pounded as the list approached where my name would be. I knew what was happening and that it was ridiculous, but simply couldn’t stop.
  3. Instead of patiently waiting to see what happens, I really really really want things to be a certain way. I punished myself by clinging too tightly to expectations. I mean, tight enough to turn my knuckles white (knucklehead that I am).

All of this opened the door to a boatload of suffering. Great. So much for being mindful. My morning as a prospective juror was fraught with anxiety.

Even after several years of daily meditation and mindfulness bells and “take 5” reminders, even after trying to be all zen about it, I was still a mess. Disappointing, by my judging eyes. But also, very human.

Things didn’t improve until I started pacing at the back of the jury lounge briskly enough to feel conspicuous. The motion soothed me, like rocking a baby. It was self care, which is the first casualty of my anxiety.

It was the only mindful thing that I could manage, but it kept the monkey busy as we zigged and zagged around other people to avoid a collision.

Once I racked up a good 3000 steps and a bunch of odd stares (don’t care, don’t care, don’t care), the pressure released a bit. Okay, that and the fact that I’d made it through the first two rounds of juror calls without hearing my name and it was already time for lunch. That combo was like the “pffft” from a fizzy bottle of kombucha. I was feeling better.

I returned from a long lunch break with my reasoning mind in charge, calculating probabilities. Three sections of seats, fifteen rows each, a minimum of three people per row…not counting the folks at random round tables and working on laptops along the walls…hey, that’s a LOT! Safety in numbers! The odds were in my favor, otherwise known as, “if your group is being chased by a hungry leopard, don’t worry about outrunning the cat, just outrun your friends.”

You mean, NONE of this stuff is real???

So the reasoning mind wrestled the crazy monkey mind into a half nelson. But alas, the reasoning mind was still a slave to expectation, with its own monkey-on-the-back. It was a tenuous peace, unstable and easily shattered by the voice over the loudspeaker, but it enabled me to approach the situation with less reactivity even if temporarily.

Guess how this messy day ended: a thousand deaths later (around 2pm, to be exact) the voice from the loudspeaker released us from service, giving me a year’s reprieve and kicking the monkey to the curb. And it was at that moment that I realized how tightly worry had gripped me, and it wasn’t even real. Everything had taken place in the space between my ears.

I thought about how my agony had been self-generated. And that’s a topic for another post.

Mindfulness Apps I Love: “Calm”

Following my cancer diagnosis, my General Practitioner wrote me a prescription for Xanax because anxiety resulted in a steep drop in my weight (not a great way to prepare for chemo!). I’m not a pill popper and didn’t like the idea of treating my runaway anxiety with drugs; nonetheless, I relented because my situation seemed out of control. When my radiation oncologist suggested that I try meditation for long term stress relief, I jumped at the idea, but wasn’t sure where to start.

The opening screen of the app reminds you to breathe. I’ve conditioned myself to take an extra deep breath here.

The Calm phone app was enthusiastically recommended by a co-worker, so I tried it. It remains the only phone app to which I’ve ever gotten a lifetime subscription. I used the free version for several weeks but got so hooked I decided to spring for it — since my first meditation with Calm almost exactly two years ago, I have not missed a single day. I also shamelessly plug it to anyone who’ll listen (*ahem*) like I’m doing here.

Features that are worth the price of admission~

Tamara Levitt’s voice: Perfection! Tamara is officially the Head of Content for the Calm app and her voice is so soothing it could cool sunburns. I’ve tried a lot of guided meditations hosted by a variety of speakers and have heard few voices that can compare to hers. Try one of her meditations and you’ll immediately know what I mean.

This little bubble provides a lot of relief!

Breathe bubble: This is a circle that expands and contracts, enabling you to follow along and breathe as it does so. It has “inhale” and “exhale” tones so you can close your eyes if you wish, and you can adjust the pace and pattern (with or without pauses) of breath, albeit minimally. I wish there were a way to personalize it more fully, but I make do with the available options. I used the bubble feature at times when I was too anxious to effectively listen to a guided meditation and I credit it with getting me through some very tough times.

Just a few of the scenes available to play in the background. Love this!

Scenes: I adore this feature! You can select from (at last count) 35 dynamic background visuals with nature sounds or airy musical motifs to play alone or along with the meditations. All these scenes are available in the free version and suit a broad spectrum of moods. I open the web version of the app on my work computer and play this feature in the background all day long. It’s magical!

As an extra bonus, you can set up the background sounds to continue playing after the meditation is over, so that if you fall asleep during your practice, you’re not jarred awake by sudden silence.

And of course, Meditations: Take your pick! There are a vast variety of meditations to choose from, most guided but some with only bells, and there are a number of lengths (in minutes) available. Since I subscribe to the app, I enjoy the Daily Calm, which has a different topic everyday, always led by Tamara, so you can expect a consistent level of quality from them (kind of like a cup o’ java from a favorite coffee chain, but without the caffeine).

Beginners should try the free “7 Days of Calm” learn-to-meditate series that offers a week’s worth of daily 10-minute sessions to ease you into a mindfulness meditation practice.

Be aware: the free version does offer some meditations, but the majority are available only to subscribers, and you’ll soon find yourself craving for more. At that point, you’ll have to decide whether it’s in your budget to commit to the paid version.

The “more” screen showing additional features available. Loads of great stuff here!

There are other features that I use less often but are worth mentioning. A friend of mine swears by the Sleep Stories, which are high quality tales designed to help you nod off, and a number of them are voiced by celebrities like Bob Ross (yes, the ‘happy clouds’ painter — what could be better?), Matthew McConaughey, Stephen Fry and even Peter Jefferson, who used to do the UK shipping forecast which so many in that part of the world found so soothing. Most, although not all, require the paid version of the app.

There are also Masterclass courses offered that I’ve found useful enough to make my family listen to them during long car trips. Topics are broad-ranging and presented by experts in their fields and new courses are added from time to time. Some courses are free, but most require the subscription to progress further than the first class session.

The Music feature offers a generous variety of specially curated musical pieces that are perfect for creating space in your day, like a life vest in stormy seas. I haven’t even come close to making full use of this feature! Many of these are free and worth exploring.

Calm Bodies is a new feature which brings mindful movement into your repertoire of calming tools. I prefer to do yoga on my own, so I haven’t made use of this feature, which unfortunately is limited to subscribers.

There are other perks for subscribers (even a special relaxation room available at select airports!) not available to those using the free version. For me, investing in a well-curated library of meditation and mindfulness options was worth the cost.

Want to stick with the free version? There are still enough great elements available to merit downloading and playing around with the app.

If you are interested in incorporating mindfulness and meditation into your life, the Calm phone app is a great place to begin.

Transitioning from “Frantic” to “Shanti”

I’ve been juggling two parts of myself.

The original “me” is the Frantic part. This was the side that fed on anxiety and didn’t learn to rein in my runaway emotions. While Frantic didn’t interfere with academic success as I was growing up, it did stifle my future prospects as I let fear drive career decisions.

Frantic is the “me” that struggles with where I am and how I got here. It’s the competitive “me”, the perfectionist “me”, the self-critical “me”. It’s the one that’s never satisfied and always trying to improve. It’s frightened and frustrated. And it’s still angry about getting cancer.

Frantic hobbled me during the times I should have run free. It followed me home from work, woke me up in the night, poked at me on the weekends. And as long a shadow as it cast on me, I was oblivious to its effects.

But there is another side. The evolving “me” is the Shanti part. It holds the world in a single breath…and then easily lets it go. It stays present and grounded. There is a sense of calm about it, and ample space to hold emotions and observe them without being overtaken by them.

When I make a mistake, it asks gently, “Might it be okay that you did what you did based on the information you had?”

It reminds me to be compassionate, that everyone is worthy of love, including me. When things feel bleak, it holds me until the darkness passes.

When these two “me”s appear, Frantic has often been first, rushing in breathless and disheveled. Shanti arrives after and gently takes over. But on those occasions when Shanti is first, Frantic stays away and things feel a little more peaceful.

I’ve been “Frantic” and I’ve been “Shanti”. The latter is a more pleasant houseguest.

Lately, Shanti has been present more often. I’ve been able to scoot Frantic into a corner where it passes time aimlessly twisting itself in knots, allowing Shanti to spread out inside my head.

Frantic is still welcome, as long as it behaves, which isn’t often. It does keep me moving forward, never resting on laurels. But Shanti tempers its blustering when it threatens to get out of control.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Nervous energy, even anxiety, has been a driving force for most of my life. It kept me productive and lean. But as much as it propelled me forward, ultimately it held me back. It wasn’t until my cancer diagnosis that I realized how detrimental it had been. I was spent. It was time to stop.

Peace arrived with my meditation practice. Cancer forced me to slow down and be mindful of the present, to sit with uncertainty. It is a beautiful change that has brought a new dimension into my life. I only wish I’d discovered it sooner, or that it were stronger, but that will come with time.

I have not completely shaken that Frantic side of me, but Shanti has brought emotional space and a sense of gentle control. Getting that balance to shift has taken work. It is, however, the most fruitful work imaginable.