Since my last post, my family and I were diagnosed with COVID. We are doing well and experiencing mild symptoms.
I’d like to devote this post to a beautiful documentary that came out on January 22, 2023, Vietnam time (January 21, 2023 in the US), a year to the day of the passing of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, aged 95, known as the “Father of Mindfulness”.
Entitled I Have Arrived, I Am Home (Plum Village YouTube Channel), this film covers the last few years of the life of Thich Nhat Hanh — also called Thay, or “teacher” — after he returned to the Tu Hieu Temple in Vietnam at which he was ordained a monk many decades prior.
Under 3/4 of an hour long, the film beautifully illustrates how Thay, in his post-stroke years, returned to his roots in preparation for his passing (“transition”). It documents his death and funeral and the effect that his life has had on the existing monasteries of the Plum Village Tradition, which he established.
The writing of Thay greatly touched me during my cancer journey, and I Have Arrived, I Am Home is a lovely video that depicts his kindness and care for his students. This was not created to “convert” anyone but only to teach by example. I hope you take some time to view it, especially as our world continues to experience much unrest and pain.
When you can’t control your anxious thoughts, what can you use to get a foothold on stability?
This was the issue for me for years, if not decades. During panicky times, I’d close my eyes at night and see a montage of fleeting images like a rapidly changing patchwork quilt that I couldn’t stop. It was kind of like at the beginning of a Marvel movie, where images whiz by you. Except that for me there were no superheroes or rush of excited anticipation.
Anxiety meant being blanketed by nausea and fear that blocked my view of reality. I couldn’t see past any of it because the sensation was all-encompassing. Mindful grounding has enabled me to get a hold on the edge of that blanket and pull it up ever so slightly to let some light in.
That was accomplished by two simple things that I could control in the midst of everything else I couldn’t: 1) changing my breathing pattern 2) identifying and releasing muscle tension
I might not have been able to slow the thoughts, decrease my heartrate or relieve the nausea directly…but the combination of the breath and relaxing my muscles provided a path that led around those things and quietly affected them behind the scenes.
First, start with your breath
Bring your attention to the breath and consciously slow it down. Start by trying to make your inhales and exhales the same length, adding a second-or-two pause in between. Depending on your level of anxiety, this may take some time if your breathing has been rapid and shallow. Any slowing is helpful, especially at the beginning. Be compassionate and patient with yourself.
I find it easiest to deepen the inhale first, drawing the breath into the belly. Placing a hand on the belly helps keep your focus there as the sense of touch supports grounding. Try a deep inbreath, pause, and a lengthened outbreath. Blowing out through pursed lips helps control the air flow and draw out the exhale. An exhale that is longer that an inhale helps slow your heartrate. Belly-breathing makes a big difference.
Aim for an inbreath of 4 counts, pause and hold for 2 counts, exhale for 6 counts.
Some guidance recommends that you place one hand on the chest while you have the other on your belly. However, in my experience, if you are particularly anxious it’s helpful to keep your focus off a racing heart. Keeping your hand on your belly is enough.
Next, relax muscular tension
Releasing the tension in your body will help calm you. We often don’t realize how much tension we’re holding until we mindfully scan our bodies.
First, streeeetch the way you’d stretch after waking or when you’ve been stuck in one position for a while. Imagine you’re a sleepy bear coming out of hibernation. Too often when stressed we crumple in and hunch over — opening up through a stretch may signal to the body that it’s safe to come out.
Then, roll your shoulders forwards and back. Gently roll your head in a front semicircle, ear to ear, paying attention to how it feel to move in that way. So many of us hold tension in the neck and shoulders and we squeeze muscles there without realizing it. Spend some time loosening up these areas.
Feel into your face. Raise and lower your brows several times. Relax the muscles around the eyes. Open and close your mouth and wiggle your jaw. Clenching in this area can cause headaches so try to release tightness here.
Turn your attention to the rest of your body. Are you knotted anywhere? Simply the process of noticing where your muscles are tightening can change your focus from anxious thoughts in your head to sensations in your body, keeping you present and less likely to get trapped by fears.
Aim for progress, not perfection. This is a learning process, so don’t wait for anxiety to reach a peak before starting. Practice when you’re calm so you know what a lengthened breath and relaxed state feels like in your body.
Those of us who have lived with anxiety would love to hang out in peaceful bliss all the time, but that’s not the reality of life. However, nurturing calm through techniques such as breathwork and muscle relaxation lessens the distress of anxiety-provoking situations and helps us find a sense of comfort within our discomfort.
Some of our greatest strengths are born in our lowest moments.
While I try not to keep returning to stories about “how far I’ve come” since my breast cancer diagnosis almost six years ago, for the start of 2023, I wanted to do a teensy bit of navel-gazing and take stock of how different everything looks compared to how it did after my 2017 diagnosis…and even from just a year ago.
My breast cancer story started the same way as it does for most of those diagnosed with cancer, with a lot of shock and disbelief. There’s nothing new or special about that.
However, for me cancer had been my ultimate health fear, the worst thing that I could image happening, particularly because I grew up during a time that cancer patients had poor prognoses and I had lost dear family to the disease. My exercise, dietary and lifestyle habits were in part driven by health concerns and that’s why my eventual diagnosis felt all the more “unfair”.
The absolute worst health catastrophe that I feared could happen to me actually did happen…and I was too bitter to appreciate that I survived it.
Not only did I survive the treatment, I have slogged through lasting side effects. Trapped by fear and anger, I lost the initial positivity that I’d experienced right after completing chemo and radiation — I mean, after all that almost anything is going to feel better — and became mired in frustration.
When I finally managed to get through my head that there are many bad things that happen to people who do not deserve them, and many far worse than my own, I was able to move past my preoccupation with myself. That took longer than I’d like to admit.
But allowing that time to work through anger and fear until I got to the point of acceptance was so important for me. And the magical part of this is that acceptance was followed by an unfettering of my thoughts. Holding that bitterness had taken so much energy that little remained for other, more important things.
At the time of my diagnosis, I was fearful and bitter. A mere year ago, I was still angry. But in 2023, I have given myself the gift of freedom from that negativity and that allows so much space to breathe deeply and turn my attention towards better things. It was that release that took with it a nice chunk of anxiety that had likewise held me captive.
And now, instead of being just a survivor, I am finally feeling like I’m thriving.
With the start of the new year, many of us set lofty goals with the intention of changing things that we do not like about ourselves.
But so many of those goals are not realized. You may be aware that it takes approximately 21-28 days in order to create a new behavior, but a cursory search on the internet suggests that most people don’t even last that long.
There are certainly behavioral modification tricks that you could use to establish a new healthy habit, but if you haven’t had success in the past, perhaps it would be worth taking a different tack this year.
Instead of doing something to immediately “fix” yourself, try sitting with the acceptance of who you are right now.
Release the pressures of becoming that person that you think you want to be and spend some time getting to know the ins and outs of the person that you already are.
You may argue that there are things that you must change within yourself, that there are challenges you must take on and healthy behaviors that you must establish. I am certainly not telling you to give up on those.
But it’s possible that you need a little self-compassion before plunging into making big changes.
So just for today, consider what an amazing being you are. Beautiful as you are right now. A mosaic of the years that you’ve already lived, showing the marks of your experiences. Some of those might be scars, but that’s okay. They have all come together to make that unique being that is “you”.
Then consider what this “you” really needs. Not late nights and fast food meals. Not being jammed into an office chair, hunched over a desk, or crumpled on a couch trying to distract yourself with TV shows about other people, neglecting the needs of the person you are.
You need the freedom to breathe deeply, be nourished and allowed to stretch out your limbs. To close your eyes and be still, to take a break from harsh lights and electronic screens. To move, whether it’s a jog-walk to the park or dancing in your living room.
Consider how you can do something supportive of yourself and the world in which you live, out of love. Those changes that you want to make, do they nuture your body? Do they lift up others or help care for your surroundings? That challenge that you wish to undertake, will it help you grow, or just mindlessly try to hammer you into something that you are not?
And once you’ve accepted where you are now, can you find a way to love and guide yourself through establishing new behaviors — because it is your choice to do so — and *not* fight the things that will contribute to your health and well-being?
Take some time to think about all of this…and proceed from there.
If you don’t love yourself, you cannot love others. You will not be able to love others. If you have no compassion for yourself, you are not capable of developing compassion for others.
As we head deeper into the holiday season, it’s easy to get lost in the hustle of preparations, gift purchases and holiday parties. So often, a time that’s supposed to be “joyous”, “merry” and “bright” becomes dark and stressful as we face the high expectations that we hold for these remaining weeks of 2022.
It’s difficult to welcome the holidays with an open heart if we’re closed off to our own needs.
I think of self-compassion as a rope. If you’re standing at the edge of a lake and see someone in distress you can only throw a rope if you have enough coils on your end. If the rope you hold is too short, it won’t reach the person you’re trying to help.
And so it is if you’re trying to show care for someone—how can you truly care for them if you don’t care for yourself? Will you even know what sincere care and compassion are?
But the bonus of self-compassion is that the rope you throw is magical — you never give it all away. The rope is endless. Compassion doesn’t hurt, and a compassionate heart opens you up to being more compassionate more easily.
Allowing yourself to have the “less-than-Hallmark” holiday spread, to admit that you’re not feeling particularly jolly, to acknowledge that you need a break from responsibilities…
Take some time to feel into where your tension lies. Stop and listen to yourself breathe. Accept your feelings without judgment. Say “no” to taking on extra responsibilities more often…and then help others in doing the same.
Be compassionate towards yourself and it will be easier to show compassion to everyone else.
How will I show compassion to myself today? By taking stock of what else I can reasonably get done…and therefore end this post right here.
Ok, I know up there I said I was ending this self-compassion post…but before I go, consider the words of Kristin Neff, PhD, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas and a research pioneer on the topic: “With self-compassion, we give ourselves the kindness and care we’d give to a good friend.”
Dr. Neff breaks self-compassion down into three elements: 1. Mindfulness 2. Self-Kindness 3. Connectedness or Common Humanity
After a few years of wondering what the heck is going on with my head, I joined a Memory and Attention Adaptation Training (MAAT) class generously provided by my cancer center (which I’ll be posting about on a later date).
This is gratifying on two levels: first, that I can learn new strategies for dealing with the memory issues and distractibility that have been plaguing me since finishing breast cancer treatment five years ago; and second, and perhaps more important to me emotionally, that what I am experiencing is REAL. It’s officially termed Chemotherapy Related Cognitive Impairment (CRCI) or, informally, chemo brain.
I’ve been told that “you’re imagining this” (I’m not) or “you’ve always been like this” (I haven’t) or “just focus harder” (I AM!!!) or even “this is just an excuse” (Argh! No!), coming from people who have been annoyed by my memory lapses.
My brain isn’t lazy. As a matter of fact, it’s the opposite problem. My brain is too busy.
In the MAAT class, we learned of a study from the University of British Columbia (UBC) by Kam et al. (2016, Clin Neurophysiol) that examined what happens inside those brains that suffer cognitive impairment from cancer treatment, even years later. In that published study, the experimental group consisted of nineteen breast cancer survivors. All had undergone chemotherapy for early stage breast cancer and had subsequently self-reported cognitive issues.
Researchers at UBC compared these survivors against twelve (non-cancer) control subjects in a task that required sustained attention. All the participants’ brains were monitored via electroencephalogram (EEG) both while working on the task and while at rest.
The results were vindicating for me and, I’m sure, for others experiencing this. Normal brains cycle through periods of focus and periods of “wandering”. However, as the UBC researchers stated in a summary of their results (published here): “We found that chemo brain is a chronically wandering brain, they’re essentially stuck in a shut out mode.”
This was true even when the breast cancer survivors thought that they were focusing. Furthermore, the survivors’ brains exhibited activity even when they were instructed to relax.
Great. We know that chemo brain is an undeniable fact for some cancer survivors and can last for years — in this study, up to three years. However, for me and some of the people in my MAAT class, it’s been five years and we’re still dealing with this, which is frustrating. What can be done about it?
It won’t come as a surprise — anxiety makes everything worse, and that holds true for chemo brain too. As mentioned above, I’ll discuss this in greater detail in a later post, but basically, a main focus of the MAAT class is learning to handle stressors in an effort to relieve anxiety.
So now that I know that what I’m experiencing is a real thing, a large part of combatting it is what I’m already trying to do — mindfulness, meditation, yoga and similar sensible self-care. And while it might seem aggravating that even with all that practice I’m still dealing with this, I’m actually bouyed by the fact that every bit of mindfulness helps. The reality is, I’ve made a monumental amount of progress from where I was when I started, five years ago.
And that keeps me going. Where would I be if I wasn’t trying?
The published study: Kam JWY, Brenner CA, Handy TC, Boyd LA, Liu-Ambrose T, Lim HJ, Hayden S, Campbell KL (2016) Sustained attention abnormalities in breast cancer survivors with cognitive deficits post chemotherapy: An electrophysiological study, Clinical Neurophysiology, 127, 369-378. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clinph.2015.03.007 Please note that the above study is not available free online at this time. For a pdf free of charge, contact one of the authors (email address next to their name at link above) or your local university library. Due to copyright issues, I am unable to distribute the full document myself.
For those of us in the United States, Thanksgiving presents an opportunity to gather with family and close friends and share a festive meal.
However, this holiday can become complicated in a time of polarized views. Coming on the heels of another political election, togetherness with those of strong opinions might be, to say the least, uncomfortable.
Put another way, the battles will be epic, the indigestion will be legendary.
So for everyone who is anticipating shifting restlessly in their seats this week, I wanted to offer you a short meditation.
Listen. If you listen closely enough, you will hear the real reasons that your family members believe what they do, particularly if their views seem hurtful or unfair. It often has something to do with fear or an unfulfilled need and often comes from a place of vulnerability.
You will chose how to approach this. But I can assure you that arguments are pointless. There will be no “winner”. Just resentment and an even stronger resolve not to change their minds. Don’t plan on pulling a “zinger” that will convert everyone to your way of understanding. Not gonna happen.
Observe. Instead of reacting to statements that you feel are wrong, watch the body language of those around you – it will show you the state that they are in. Clenched fists, hunched shoulders, unsmiling faces, repetitive movements – all these belie discomfort. Are people enjoying their food or unhappily shoveling it down?
Take a step back to help you see what’s really going on. Everyone at the table has a three-dimensional life with their own desires, joys and sorrows. In the time of heightened emotions, it’s easy to forget that.
Breathe. Don’t get sucked in. If someone asks you what you think about a contentious topic, smile and compliment Aunt Gladys’ stuffing. How does she always make it so flavorful? You woke this morning salivating, thinking about having it for dinner.
It may sound contrived, but if you can find a sincere compliment to express, you can change the direction of the conversation and relieve tension. But please, be sincere.
This is not a dishonest deflection of attention. This is finding that one thing that everyone can agree on and focusing on it. It’s like lighting a spark and then blowing on it gently to help it grow into a warm and cozy fire. Everyone benefits.
This is mindfulness at its best. Every person has something within them that wants to be loved and respected, even if they don’t feel they deserve it. Sometimes those who seem the most cantankerous feel the most wretched inside. Remember, at the end of the visit, you will get to leave, so why not leave having spread a little joy and goodwill?
At the least, you will have made Aunt Gladys smile.
There is a lot going on in the world that is worth fighting for. Thanksgiving dinner is not the place to do that. And perhaps the peace that you impart over that meal will eventually soften hearts and open minds.
Ah, anxiety. I hate it but it’s such a fixture in my life, although it’s gotten better now that I’ve become more aware of the nuances of my reactions to stress.
That awareness was key, but it took a while for me to figure it out. I had been told to “feel what the response to anxiety feels like in my body”, but lemme tell ya, when you’re in the middle of being really stressed out, the only answer you can give is: “TERRIBLE!”
I think the way this suggestion has been posed is all wrong. It wasn’t until I started mindfulness meditation that I finally understood what was really the point of feeling into body sensations.
First of all, in case you’ve been fortunate enough to never experience severe anxiety, here’s how to imagine it: (1) turn on a really large blender, (2) stick your head in it. That’s about it. Then, when someone asks you to feel what body sensations you have, you answer, “Dunno, my brain is missing.”
Basically, in the midst of anxiety, there is so much that feels out of control that I don’t think it’s possible to lasso down sensations without having a person hold your hands, look into your eyes and say, “Okay, focus on me and do this…”
And that, my friends, is why scratching out even the slightest bit of space for yourself in a stressful situation, just so that you are not 100% caught up in the whirlwind, is so beneficial for getting yourself through it.
Just like you don’t wait until the day of your first marathon to start training for it, you need to prepare for the next tornadic episode of anxiety before you’re in it.
Become your own Professional Stress Manager. That takes practice, primarily when things are peaceful. Just like you don’t wait until the day of your first marathon to start training for it, you need to prepare for the next tornadic episode of anxiety before you’re in it.
Job One is bringing yourself out of the swirling thoughts in your head and that can be hard to do, since they are where your anxiety originates. That’s why you have to re-direct your attention to something outside your mind, and that’s where focusing on body sensations comes into play.
First, find yourself an anchor, like the oft-mentioned breath, and start with that. Focusing on the breath gives you a target for your attention when everything else feels crazy. There are a variety of sensations associated with breathing: the rush of air, expansion of the chest, expansion of the belly and whatever else is salient to you.
Pick one that makes sense. It is expected that you won’t be able to maintain your focus on it and your mind will wander off. That’s OK. In fact, the whole point of this is that you DO lose your focus. And once you realize that you have, bring your attention back to your breath.
And that’s it. That’s ALL of it. It doesn’t get more complicated than that.
And when you’ve achieved some sort of stability there, you’ve made yourself some space. Take advantage of that and bring your attention to other parts of your body, with one eye on your breath: is there a tingle in your fingertips? How about your toes? Are you clenching any muscles in your body and what happens if you try to release them?
Ask yourself, “How do I know I’m anxious?” What are the signs? Face feeling hot? Stomach bunched up? Cold feeling in the intestines? Tightness in the chest? Can I take a deeper breath and try to relieve that tightness? Can I send warmth into my gut? Try to define what anxiety means to you on a physical level. The more you do that, the more control you get on your reaction and the experience is not as frightening.
See, the idea is that you need that fingerhold in the crack between your stressor and your reaction to it so that you don’t get swept up in the lack of control. And establishing that will take some practice and time, but as with any exercise, each practice session will benefit you. And then best time to start is now.
Anyone who’s been through cancer knows that the experience is not just about the cancer. The entire journey involves much more, revealing even the little anxieties that had been tucked away in dark corners.
One of those for me was that I was constantly put on scales. EVERY single doctor’s visit, I was weighed. And I hated it.
It’s worth mentioning that I don’t have what most people refer to as a “weight problem”. Unless, that is, you mean being exceptionally diligent that I not put on weight. For me, weight was tied to self-worth, and in my perfectionist view, I was driven by fear of shame to keep my weight down.
Ironically, the positive side effect of this was that I became very interested in exercise and healthy eating, and that has served me well. But of course, it took a long while for all of this to shake out into a truly healthy mentality, and particularly in my teens and early 20s, my mindset was not the healthiest.
By my 50s, however, I had a great relationship with my active, healthy lifestyle.
And then I got cancer.
And all of a sudden, hospital scales were all over the place, and even not being overweight, I sweated the weigh-ins. I sweated them when I first went to see my doc about the lump, when my weight started plummeting even before my first chemo infusion (hello, uncontrolled anxiety) and when post-infusion I was retaining water and my weight crept up.
I could write an entire post (or several!) about how, while I religiously weighed myself twice a week at home, I had intentionally put off several doctor’s visits over the years NOT because I was 10-20 pounds over a reasonably healthy weight…but because I was about three pounds higher than I felt I should be. Those three or four pounds would have disappeared on my 5’11” athletic frame, but that was beside the point.
There was an “acceptable” number and I wanted to make sure I was there before heading to the doctor.
The number of cancer visit weigh-ins was staggering. Every.single.time I saw the doctor (which was a lot), I had to hop on the scale. I would purposefully not drink very much water or eat less beforehand. It DID NOT EVEN MATTER that we were dealing with a life threatening illness. I absolutely hated getting weighed in a doctor’s office and I hated what the scale meant to me – that I was somehow never good enough.
I had internalized that belief.
Gradually, the number of weigh-ins decreased. It was as if a pot that was at full boil slowly simmered down. My mindfulness practice showed me not only that anxiety was not a helpful reaction to a stressful situation, but that the slight weight fluctuations that I obsessed about weren’t apparent to anyone else. Nonetheless, I had taken them to be indicative of yet another way that I felt I had fallen short of the person I “should have” been.
And that helped me understand and begin to deal with those unreasonable and even meaningless expectations I had of myself that were still lurking in the shadows.
So now, when it’s time to go to the doctor, do I fret the scale?
Well, I still feel that twinge because it’s a deeply-ingrained habit, but now I understand where that twinge comes from. And once I get off the scale, I forget about it and go on with my day.
Some time back, I listened to a lovely guided meditation on the Insight Timer app by Emma Polette in which she instructed the listener to “feel how you want to feel”. I wrote a post about this because I thought it was a perfect morning exercise, one that helps train you to establish a sense of awareness of how much control you yourself have in how you feel.
Well, I wanted to revisit this concept but with a focus on thoughts, since so many of us deal with overactive minds.
Find yourself a quiet spot and turn your attention to your thoughts. Regardless of how much brain chatter you’re currently experiencing, consider what you would like to be thinking about.
That’s it. Your mind may be cluttered with worries, but IF you could think about something pleasant and calming, IF that’s where your mind’s focus could be, what you be thinking about?
Allow yourself to sink into this. Maybe your mind would be focused on potential successes in your career, troubleshooting a problem that you haven’t had time to devote attention to? Maybe you would simply focus on the task at hand, without intrusive thoughts invading your headspace? Maybe you would sit quietly without feelings of self-blame or incompetence? Or imagine yourself breezing through a situation with a difficult individual?
The act of asking ourselves what we would like to be thinking about requires us to take a step back and make space for it. The realization that we have the ability to decide what to think about unshackles us from our thoughts. The more we do this, the more we widen the gap between what we think and our concept of ourselves, making it easier to observe the thoughts before us rather than to be sucked into the torrent of images and feelings that course through our minds.
What we fill our minds with is so powerful in terms of affecting certain wanted outcomes. It is often during periods of mindfulness meditation that things I’ve forgotten come back to me, I realize solutions to problems or come up with useful ideas. That’s what a calm mind is perfect for.
And so often, people lament that things are not they way they want them to be. So why not use that opportunity to truly feel into and savor what your mindset would be if things felt good? And then, if it’s available to you, maintain that mindset.
What would you be thinking…and how would that feel? A sense of peace and self-confidence? Perhaps space, distance from negative thoughts.