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Calm Your Mind, Boost Your Mood

By on March 13th, 2015 Categories: Uncategorized

Being diagnosed with breast cancer can make you feel scared, anxious, stressed, and sleepless. Besides the diagnosis itself, there’s uncertainty everywhere. Your mind is swimming with all kinds of questions: Which doctors will be on your team? What treatments will you get? What are the possible side effects? How do you tell your children, other family members, and coworkers?

As a dual citizen, both doctor and patient myself, I have had the same fears and concerns as other women: About half of women diagnosed with breast cancer are distressed and feel anxious and depressed. Up to half of all cancer patients have sleep problems. For about a third of people undergoing or beyond treatment for cancer, these problems can stop them from being their best — lasting a short time or even years.

Medicines such as antidepressants may offer some relief. Still, these medicines can have side effects and some may lessen the benefits of tamoxifen. Fortunately, there are ways to calm emotions and boost quality of life without medicine. One of the most effective ways to do this without medicine is to practice a type of meditation called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.

What is mindfulness meditation?

There are many types of meditation, and all have one goal: getting yourself into a state called “mindfulness.” Mindfulness means you pay attention to each moment of your life without judging it. Mindfulness meditation aims to make you more aware of your feelings, thoughts, sensations, and behaviors as they happen. This way, you have a calmer, clearer mind that’s better able to experience joy and to accept and respond to stress. While it is based on some principles of Buddhism, meditation is not a religion.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is a form of mindfulness meditation. It’s designed to help people facing illness, pain, and other problems. It combines attention-focusing exercises such as becoming aware of your breathing, reviewing each part of your body to notice how it feels (called body scanning), and gentle yoga poses that are easy to learn. When you scan your body, you pay attention to sensations in of all parts of your body in sequence, from feet to head.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction was developed in 1979 by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He is the founder of its Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society, which does research on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and offers group classes on it. To get a feel for what Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is, you can listen to this short podcast.

The healing benefits of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

In studies on how Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction can help people with cancer, scientists usually compare people trained in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction to people who don’t meditate or who use another type of stress reduction.

Help for stress and mood changes:

  • A 2014 review of 41 studies involving nearly 3,000 people looked at whether Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction was safe and effective for people. The research strongly suggested that mindfulness meditation programs reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.
  • A 2013 review of nine studies on the effects of mindfulness meditation suggests that it improved mental health in women diagnosed with breast cancer.
  • A 2012 analysis of three studies with more than 3,000 breast cancer patients compared women who practiced mindfulness meditation along with standard breast cancer care to women who got only standard breast cancer care. The research found that mindfulness meditation helped reduce anxiety and depression.

Sleep improvement:

  • A 2014 study compared 79 breast cancer survivors in a 6-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program to women getting standard breast cancer care. Six weeks after their meditation program, those women slept better and woke up less often than women getting standard care.

How does it work?

How can something as simple as greater body awareness improve our mental health? It’s not completely clear, but we do know that emotions affect the body’s responses. Some scientists think practicing mindfulness affects how the brain works, possibly by strengthening nerve pathways in the parts that control certain behaviors.

When a person feels stress, activity in the part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for conscious thinking and planning, decreases. At the same time, activity increases in other parts of the brain: the amygdala, hypothalamus, and anterior cingulate cortex, which are areas that quickly activate the body’s stress response.

Studies have suggested that mindfulness reverses these patterns during stress. Mindfulness increases prefrontal cortex activity, which can regulate and turn down your body’s stress response.

How to start

It’s worth mentioning that a number of researchers have noticed that people enjoy doing Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and tend to stick with the program.

Classes on mindfulness meditation are offered in almost every state and nearly 30 countries. (Dr. Kabat-Zinn doesn’t recommend learning mindfulness meditation by reading a book or watching videos.) To find a class, ask your doctor or nurse if there is a program near you. You can also search “mindfulness-based stress reduction” online. For classes at the Center for Mindfulness in Massachusetts, visit their website, email mindfulness@umassmed.edu, or call 508-856-2656.

To get the best results from Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction:

  • talk to your doctor before starting — together you can decide if it’s right for you
  • check to see if your insurance company covers mindfulness meditation classes
  • some workplaces offer the training at low or no cost, so ask your employer or check this list
  • if possible, find a class aimed at breast cancer survivors, called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (BC); look for an instructor that’s experienced and certified
  • once you start, tell your treatment team that you’re practicing mindfulness meditation
  • practice regularly (alone or with others) in a quiet, private setting; it can be done almost anywhere, such as while sitting in traffic or taking a walk
  • your doctor may ask you to track if and how well mindfulness meditation is working; try keeping a symptom log for several weeks or months, writing down each time you meditate and how you feel before, during, and after

Marisa Weiss, M.D. is the founder, president, and chief medical officer of Breastcancer.org, the world's most trafficked online resource for medically reviewed breast health and breast cancer information, reaching over 14 million visitors per year. A breast cancer oncologist with over twenty years of active practice in the Philadelphia region, Dr. Weiss is regarded as a visionary advocate for her innovative and steadfast approach to informing, empowering, and treating patients with breast cancer.


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