Cancer counsellor Bincy Mathew explains how mindfulness can help deal with cancer pains.
Being in pain is not a pleasant thing for anyone. No one ever wants to welcome it.
When physical discomfort is due to an illness like cancer, it often triggers severe psychological distress for not only the patient but also the caregivers, ultimately impacting everyone’s quality of life.
People with cancer often report fluctuations in the way they experience the pain during the day. And it is quite normal that the patients find it difficult to convey what exactly they are experiencing, to their friends, family, or even the medical professionals.
And for obvious reasons, cancer patients often feel confused with such sudden and unexpected changes in their life. This may also impact the caregivers as they too sometimes experience helplessness and frustration for being unable to make their loved ones feel any better.
Here is why it is important to first understand the underlying causes of pain so that it can help us efficiently find a remedy, or treatment to reduce the suffering.
The good news is, there are many proven scientific techniques there to reduce pain including medical and non-medical management. One of the non-medical management is practising mindfulness.
Studies suggest that mindfulness practises can help reduce effects associated with chronic pain, and they help change the way you think about that pain.
Did you know, September is International pain awareness month? We are trying to raise public awareness around pain and its management with this article. We assure you it will help you to understand how mindfulness practice can help in coping with physical discomfort associated with cancer-related pain.
What is Mindfulness Practice?
Mindfulness is the practice of bringing focus to the present moment (here and now) and not being overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.
When you train your brain to be mindful by practising it, you’re actually remodelling the physical structure of your brain.
There are multiple scientific studies done in this area and they found that mindfulness can help in:
- reducing stress
- improving well-being
- improving physical health
- Increasing overall happiness.
In terms of pain, if there is increased awareness and acceptance of pain it can lead to an improved positive outlook towards life for those who practise it.
According to Tony Bernhard, the author of ‘How to live well with chronic pain and illness, there are three components for physical discomfort:
- unpleasant physical sensations such as pain
- the emotional reactions to that physical discomfort
- the thoughts that are related to it.
Here, the root cause is a physical component, but the rest of the two components are related to the emotional aspects and it’s often referred to as “mental suffering”.
When we experience physical pain, it starts impacting our mind and emotions and our consciousness gets soiled with illogical responses. This is when the importance of practising mindfulness comes in.
- Take several deep breaths.
- Focus on the physical sensations in your body, while you are breathing.
- Now, observe what emotions are present in your mind.
If you notice stressful emotions, there are two ways to respond to it. One is to respond with aversion (dislike) and another is responding with acceptance.
If you are responding with aversion, that means you are resisting what’s going on in your mind. This means you are experiencing stressful emotions such as frustration or irritation with physical discomfort.
In contrast, if you are responding with acceptance, you are able to understand and accept what’s going on. You are able to focus your mind towards kindness and compassion.
If you are unable to tame your stressful emotions, it will find a way out through a range of strange strains of thoughts. These thoughts may soon manifest as physical reactions in the body.
This process will be repeated again and again and will take your quality of life through a downward spiral. That is exactly what you must stop before it happens.
To understand these stressful patterns of thoughts, try this:
- Take a few deep breaths again, doing it with an attitude of care.
- Try to observe what pattern of thoughts are running through your mind.
For example, if you have thoughts like “because of me, everyone is suffering”, try to observe the thoughts and assess the validity. Are these thoughts really true?
Either you can believe your wild imagination or you can assess the facts. Many of our thoughts are not facts. They are merely conclusions that we develop in response to a limited set of facts.
Practise the Body Scan
The body scan is a mindfulness practice. In this, you pay attention to the body parts by focusing on each body part, one after the other, in a sequence. It starts either from feet to head, or head to feet, as long as it goes in a sequence.
- Lie down wherever you are comfortable.
- Begin by bringing your attention to one of your body parts.
- You can close your eyes if that’s comfortable for you.
- You can start from feet to head or head to feet.
- Focus on one spot as you continue breathing slowly and deeply.
There is a chance your mind will wander during this task. But the moment you realise it, try to bring back your attention to the body part.
Try to remain alert and aware of the present moment by focussing on just the body part.
Sometimes our mind labels certain sensations as good or bad; pleasurable, comfortable or even painful. While you are doing these exercises just notice what you feel without any judgement; good or bad.
When you practice the body scan, you will start with a few deep conscious breaths. As you take a deep breath, rest your attention on the physical sensations of your breath as it comes in and goes out of your body.
When you inhale, know that you’re breathing in and as you exhale, know that you are breathing out and have a sense of relaxing more deeply.
Here are more detailed instructions for the body scan.
Let’s start with your left foot:
- Bring all your attention to the left foot. From there you move your attention in a sequence to other parts. You might want to move in this order: the heel, the ankle, the calf, the shin, the knee to the thigh. Scan your left leg for any sensations to simply be aware of them. During this time, you may imagine the breath that you have taken from the nose is flowing through the body and reaching the leg. If there is any physical discomfort, try not to show aversion but try to be aware of its existence at the moment. Try to be comfortable with the discomfort for a change, just for this moment. If there is no discomfort or if you feel a lack of sensations, you can be aware of that too, and move on to another body part in sequential order.
- When you are ready, move your attention back to the right foot just like you did for the left leg. Starting from the heel, the ankle, the calf, the shin, the knee, to the thigh.
- The pelvic or buttocks region and the associated organs.
- Bring your attention to your stomach area.
- Notice your left hands.
- Notice your right arms. Notice any sensation in your arms.
- Notice your neck and throat.
- Soften your jaw. Let your face and facial muscles be soft.
- Then, notice your whole body present. Take one more breath.
Continue to focus on your breathing for as long as you like.
Be aware of your whole body as best you can.
When you are ready, slowly open your eyes and bring your attention back to your surroundings.
Please note that this may take a few trials before you get things right. Don’t be harsh on yourself. Have patience when you practice it and soon you will start seeing the results.
Practice will make things easy over time.
Once this has become a regular habit you will start seeing positive outcomes to your treatment.
Listen to a breast cancer survivor talk about how she maintains physical and mental fitness during cancer.