Many people turn to stress-reduction techniques like relaxation breathing, guided imagery, meditation, aromatherapy and the body scan meditation practice, because having to deal with cancer is so stressful. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) and body scan meditation is recommended to be done together by therapists, wellness counselors and stress reduction teachers to help keep muscle tension low, minimize pain signaling, decrease worry and alleviate some fatigue. However, this may not be the right stress-reduction method for everyone.
Body scan meditation involves the person lying flat on the floor on their back and in a quiet space. While closing your eyes you focus on breathing in a slow, steady fashion with the voice of a therapist or teacher guiding your attention to parts of your body from your head to your toes. When you are directed to tighten the muscles of your face and with an exhale of breath slowly releasing the tension, it is the PMR part that comes in to the therapy. You would then tighten the shoulder muscles, bring your shoulders to your ears, exhale your breath, and then release the tension. You will continue this until reaching the muscles of your feet, curling up your toes, then releasing the tension with an exhale of breath. Progressively tightening and releasing the muscle groups while breathing in a controlled fashion is the goal so that your whole body can become fully relaxed. This is sometimes called fully relaxing into the ground and is to feel comforting to your body and mind.
If this works for you it’s great, but some people with a cancer diagnosis may find the body scan meditation actually worsens their anxiety. Stress from cancer originates with the body and by turning your attention to the body, your mind may hyper-focus on every single ache, twinge, tingle or other type of pain. When this happens, the mind may get trapped into thinking about everything that is wrong with the body and may increase worry about where the cancer cells currently are, or if the cancer will come back to one body part or another. Having a quiet room might actually magnify the worry about cancer because there are no distractions from thinking about your body that either has, or used to have, cancer.
It is possible to make this relaxation technique of body scan and progressive muscle relaxation work even while dealing with cancer by actively thinking about what is working in your body. If you can take in a deep breath through your nose and exhale through your mouth, pull your shoulders down out of your ears, stretch your neck and make circles with your wrists and ankles while exhaling to release the tension in the joints, your body might still be able to use this technique. Things that your body is still able to do while reminding yourself of that regularly, may be helpful for your mental well-being.
Walking practice, if you are able, is another way to enjoy the relaxation benefits of body scan meditation or PMR. Take advantage of the wind, birds, trees, grass and squirrels while taking a walk to distract your mind from cancer thoughts. Just moving the body is a distraction, so pay attention to it from head to toe and think about walking tall with good posture. Notice the movements of your arms and feet as they make contact with the ground. Breathe slowly with purposeful inhales through your nose and exhale through your mouth.
Stress is not easy to manage when you have cancer and it may take multiple activities to get the benefits you are reaching for. Just feeling a little less stressed is something worth working for, especially when dealing with cancer.
Dr Fredda Branyon