Five Healthful and Helpful Tips
Life can present many stressors and if you have just completed treatment for cancer your nervous system has been under assault! The challenges of appointments and scans, treatment and blood work, waiting and decision-making are only the start. There is also managing your life and the fears that go along with a diagnosis and the days of uncertainty and scananxiety after. You may be in active treatment or having completed treatment and notice that things just don’t feel good. For some this is still true years after treatment. Anxiety? Insomnia? Irritability? Depression? Relationship Issues? PTSD? Pain? Difficulty concentrating? Fatigue? In part these are all related to a nervous system under duress. Cancer can really hijack you. Any type of extreme stress can lead to hormonal, physiological and emotional challenges. Each of us has different emotional stories and emotional styles. For some, wanting to address how they manage their emotions after being through something as scary as cancer can be both a challenge and a blessing. You may not even be thinking about it as a nervous system problem. Good news! There are more and more helpful techniques to help you calm your over-worked stress response and begin to manage the anxiety, fear, uncertainty and mood and cognitive challenges you are struggling with these days. Think your nervous system, your physical and emotional response systems are out of whack? Think about a reset!!
1. Check In
How are you feeling? Take some time and do a self-review. Consider reflecting on your mood, your daily disposition. Are you feeling angry, sad, anxious, depressed, irritable, frustrated, lonely, in pain, full of grief, or perhaps grateful and wanting to “pay it forward”? Do you feel that the folks around you just don’t get what is going on for you? Are you terrified by uncertainty or easily triggered by smells, sounds, places or activities? Not sure about choices in relationships or your work? Acknowledge your challenges. You might even want to ask a loved one or friend what they notice.
How are you sleeping? How are you eating? How is it to engage in your life activities? Is fatigue regulating your days? Are you experiencing physical discomfort or pain? Do you enjoy physical activity? How do you feel sensually and sexually? How are you feeling about your body? Do you look forward to your day? Do you experience moments of joy and gratitude?
Everyone deals with the challenges that cancer and cancer treatment present differently. Do you find yourself comparing yourself to others?
“Just where you are - that’s the place to start”
- Pema Chodron
Consider checking in on a regular basis. The more frequently you do this the more comfortable and nimble you will be with the process. Some people benefit from a weekly or even daily “mind dump”. Take about five to ten minutes to write down EVERYTHING that is going through your mind. Writing down the list can be very helpful and helps you to track what is important to attend to now. That can include things that you want to get done today, tomorrow or sometime soon, feelings you are having, financial concerns, health concerns, gratitude, frustrations, thoughts about a friend or loved one, your bucket list, your mortality… EVERYTHING.
Getting further clarity on your stress level and the areas of your life that are impacting you most negatively can be both scary and a way to move out of this darkness. Our bodies, as you know, are pretty amazing and yours has gone through a lot. Your body may be trying it’s best to cope with the chronic stressors that both life and life with or after cancer present. For example, many aspects of cancer and cancer treatment can stimulate the “flight or fight response” as well as chronic states of fear. The part of your brain that responds to fear is the “primitive brain” or the “reptilian brain”. This was the part of the brain that developed earliest and instinctually protects the physical body. This part of your brain is the control center for your survival instincts. Has yours been busy? One of the challenges you may be facing is moving your awareness from your fear or anxiety based “instinctual brain” to your “thinking brain" (cerebral cortex). Each time we practice doing this, trying to understand our fear or anxiety, we strengthen our coping response. Moving to our thinking brain can take “coping courage” as we learn to cope with difficult emotions or feelings.
If you find yourself really struggling with anxiety, depression or PTSD there may be a whole host of helpful approaches. (Feeling triggered? Remember SNAPP). However, PLEASE do not deny your suffering. Let those close to you know and contact your health care provider. Developing coping skills includes the ability to seek help.
Taking the time to check in on a regular basis also gives you information about what next steps you might be willing to take. Chronic stress impacts many aspects of your health and healing. When the body has been under prolonged stress there can be an alteration in the brain’s ability to function. This includes memory, concentration and learning…also the areas that are impacted by chemobrain! So how do you know where to start? Consider rating the items of your “mind dump” by what is most urgent or what is most important to you.
What are your priorities? For example, if trying to figure out how to get a better handle on fatigue, you might want to consider a whole range of behaviors including how you are sleeping, how you are nourishing yourself-literally and figuratively, how much activity you do in a day (yes it does help!), and what stressors you can control. Some of you may be uncomfortable with the physical changes that you have experienced and want to figure out how to take steps toward healing and wholeness. You may find yourself wanting or needing to connect with others.
“The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.”
- Pema Chodron
3. Reaching Out
This can be really tough especially if you are tough on yourself!! There are SO, SO MANY helpful resources available. When you prioritize the areas that you want to change, you have taken another step. If you are concerned about your mood, your anxiety, struggling with fear and uncertainty, or wonder if you are experiencing different feelings than others who have been through cancer and treatment, consider reaching out. Some folks may not even know until months after treatment but are experiencing PTSD (lots and lots of folk experience some aspects of post-traumatic stress). Where do you feel comfortable going to ask for or look for resources and referrals? Some options are your oncologist or nurse navigator. Perhaps asking others you’ve met during your treatment or in a support group for referrals or going to your treatment facility’s resource center is an option. Some folks benefit from working with a health coach who knows about cancer. Sometimes this is done in person, other times it may be over the phone, or via the internet. Many benefit from the ease of scheduling meetings during the evening or when most convenient and the integrative approach to facing challenges. Coaching can also be helpful to get clarity about your challenges as well as a plan and support moving forward to address the behaviors you would like to alter. You may want to work with a therapist or look into local or online support groups. Many benefit from working with an acupuncturist, nutritionist, massage or bodywork (Rosen, Feldenkrais, Cranio-Sacral, etc) practitioner or energy healing professional (Reiki, Polarity, Therapeutic Touch). Once again, acknowledging you are ready to try something different may be the first step to aid your coping skills and your sense of resilience. There are wonderfully supportive resources throughout the internet and social media. I encourage you to do a little exploring. Be curious! Be courageous! Reaching out may take a little courage but know that you ARE courageous!! Remember what you have been through?
“Our job is not to deny the story, but to deny the ending-to rise strong, recognize our story and rumble with the truth until we get to the place where we think, Yes, this is what happened to me, this is my truth and I will choose how the story ends.”
- Brené Brown
You may have seen more and more about the benefits of mindfulness but be unsure about how to “do it” or what the heck it is! Mindfulness is paying attention to what is going on in the moment WITHOUT judgment. Some people may sit to practice mindfulness but others walk or even practice while eating! Prayer can be a form of mindfulness as are some types of yoga and movement practices. What we do know is that mindfulness is helpful and healing both to your psychological and physical health and your stress level. Mindfulness is about accepting what you feel in the present moment as neither right nor wrong but information about you. It can be as simple as breathing slowly and evenly for a few minutes. One technique is breathing in for 4 seconds (slowly 1 and 2 and 3 and 4), holding your breath for 4 seconds (slowly 1 and 2 and 3 and 4), then exhaling to the count of 4 (1 and 2 and 3 and 4) and doing this for 4 minutes. Navy Seals use this technique and mindful breathing practices have been shown to benefit veterans experiencing PTSD. Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is helpful to some with depression. There are numerous other benefits too including boosting your immune system and helping your brain in the areas of learning, focus, attention skills, memory and emotional regulation. Mindfulness in one tool in your toolbox to help “reset” that fear based “reptilian brain” and move you towards a better quality of life. Try this quiz. There are great resources in print (yes, books and magazines) and online as well as apps. Here are a few to check out.
https://www.headspace.com/headspace-meditation-app (founder personally experienced cancer)
5. Make a Plan
Where do you want to start? What do you currently find most challenging? Is what you are doing working? If not, are you invested in changing course? Sometimes it can be as simple as trying to routinely practice one new behavior but at other times and for other people there may be layers to shed, freeing you from the old ways of doing things that are no longer working for you. Are you ready to take a first step toward living life with a greater sense of ease? Are you ready to reconnect with your why?
Similar to learning anything new, we benefit from having a plan of study, or a plan of how to integrate what we have learned. First we benefit from the clarity of where we want to start and then where we want to go. Goals can help us to feel successful. Goals serve you best when they are realistic, heart felt, and measurable. Step by step, trusting yourself that you can have a plan that serves you living whole-heartedly and passionately. Think of one thing that might alter your day for the better-no think of two things! Can you plan those into your day? Yes, I know you can and I encourage you to start today!
“I learned and am still learning how to live today without looking too far ahead, to make the best of whatever is going on, to find something good in even the worst days.”
- Katherine Wilson
What have you found helpful? What would you like to know more about? Look for the next blog posts to continue on the topic of supporting your nervous system. In the meantime, if you would like help in clarifying the steps you want to take, or help with achieving your goals while also helping you with accountability in taking those steps, feel free to contact me!