by Linda Carlson, Ph.D., R.Psych.
If you’ve been following the health news perhaps you’ve seen some of the headlines:
Benefits of Mindfulness Practice Now Widely Recognized http://www.newsday.com/business/benefits-of-mindfulness-practice-now-widely-recognized-1.5832199
Waking up: Study shows mindfulness can offer health benefits http://www.nooga.com/162705/waking-up-study-shows-mindfulness-can-offer-health-benefits/
The Tipping Point for Mindfulness http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bill-george/mindfulness-tipping-point_b_3477726.html
Indeed, there has been so much research lately on the benefits of mindfulness practice for a range of applications – from health care, to work productivity, relationships and parenting – it’s hard not to have come across it. But what really IS mindfulness? How can it be helpful to people with cancer? And if I’m interested, how can I learn mindfulness meditation? These are the questions I’ll begin to answer for you today, and further address in future columns.
Simply put, mindfulness is learning to be aware in the present moment with a non-judgemental attitude. It’s about paying kind attention to your experience as it is unfolding in the moment, with acceptance and ease. There is no rushing, no striving or grasping and no trying to make the experience be something it is not. When you learn to practice mindfulness, in those moments when you can just pay attention to and accept the moment, it can be very calm and peaceful. Or maybe not. Even if your moment is filled with doubt, fear or sadness, being present for it is better than neglecting it, distracting yourself from it or dwelling in past wrongdoings and future worry.
Mindfulness is simple, but it’s by no means easy. It requires training and practice. That’s where the meditation part comes in. The best way to train yourself to be more mindful as your go through your daily life is to formally and purposively practice the skills required. Mindfulness meditation is a technique that will help you do this.
But how can it help when going through cancer? As you well know, for people dealing with a cancer diagnosis and treatment, life can be challenging. There are practical things like taking time off work for treatment, changing all your plans and schedules, and dealing with finances. There are emotional challenges like having to tell your family and friends about your illness and support them in this difficult time. Some of the most challenging aspects of cancer are dealing with the loss of control over your body and your future, uncertainty about what to expect and fear about what may happen. Symptoms like discomfort, pain and fatigue may be present. Questions of life and death move into the forefront. How can facing all of this in the present moment with acceptance possibly help?
Perhaps surprisingly, it does help. Thousands of people with cancer and their loved ones who have taken our 8-week Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery training program (and many more who have learned mindfulness meditation in other ways) have reported feeling less angry, anxious, worried, depressed and stressed out. They sleep better, have more energy and feel more at peace with their situation. Why? They tell us facing their problems in meditation practice with acceptance allows learning to relate to thoughts and emotions in a different, less reactive, way. They have control over when and how to look at their fears, and how to respond to life’s challenges. Facing fear and the tumult of other difficult emotions on purpose, for long enough, without needing to do anything about it except pay attention, allows them to see that everything is constantly changing, and almost anything can be tolerated for a short time.
If you want to learn more about this approach for dealing with cancer, our book is a good place to start. It’s called Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery: A step-by-step MBSR approach to help you cope with treatment and reclaim your life. http://www.amazon.ca/Mindfulness-Based-Cancer-Recovery-Step-Step/dp/1572248874
We’ll give you more practical instructions on how to begin your own mindfulness meditation practice in the next installment. Until then, just start by paying attention, right now, in your mind and body, using all of your senses, in this moment. Look around and see the blue sky, smell the green grass and feel the breeze on your skin. Listen to the song on the radio. Pay attention to what your partner is saying to you. Turn off the TV. Go for a walk. If you feel like crying, cry. And if you feel like singing, sing. Life will unfold around you in unpredictable and often beautiful ways, if you are simply there to allow it.
Dr. Linda Carlson holds the Enbridge Research Chair in Psychosocial Oncology, is an Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research Health Scholar, and Full Professor in Psychosocial Oncology in the Department of Oncology, Faculty of Medicine at the University of Calgary. She is Director of Research and works as a Clinical Psychologist at the Department of Psychosocial Resources at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre. Dr. Carlson trained as a Clinical Health Psychologist at McGill University in Montreal, researching the area of psychoneuroendocrinology. She worked as a post-doctoral fellow at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary, sponsored by a Terry Fox Postdoctoral Research Fellowship from the National Cancer Institute of Canada/Canadian Cancer Society and subsequently received a Canadian Institutes of Health Research New Investigator award from 2002-2007. Dr. Carlson received the Kawano New Investigator Award from the International Psycho-Oncology Society in 2006; the William E. Rawls Prize in cancer control from the National Cancer Institute of Canada/Canadian Cancer Society in 2007; a New Investigator Award from the Canadian Psychological Association Health Section in 2009 and the Research Excellence award from the Canadian Association of Psychosocial Oncology in 2010.
Dr. Carlson’s research in Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery has been published in many high-impact journals and book chapters, and she recently published a patient manual entitled: Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery: A step-by-step MBSR approach to help you cope with treatment and reclaim your life, in addition to a professional training manual published in 2009 with Shauna Shapiro entitled The Art and Science of Mindfulness: Integrating mindfulness into psychology and the helping professions. She has published over 100 research papers and book chapters in the area of psycho-oncology, holds several millions of dollars in grant funding and regularly presents her work at international conferences.