It’s no secret that mindfulness, or focusing on the present moment, can be good for your well-being. But researchers are still uncovering the full potential of mindfulness meditation and how it can benefit people with cancer.
For survivors of breast cancer, studies show that practicing this type of meditation may offer some relief from the depression, fatigue, anxiety and stress that often sets in after treatment ends. UCLA-led research found that just six weeks of mindfulness meditation significantly reduced depression symptoms in survivors of breast cancer. And the effects lasted more than six months after meditation stopped.
What is mindfulness meditation?
Like all meditation, mindfulness meditation is a way to train your mind. Some meditation requires you to clear your mind entirely of thought. But the goal of mindfulness meditation is to focus intently on the feelings, thoughts and sensations you are having at that moment. Then you use that awareness to openly accept those feelings without any interpretation or judgement.
Consistent practice may help balance your emotions and train you to be mindful even when you are not meditating. It can be a valuable coping strategy for dealing with stress, anxiety and depression.
Mindfulness meditation is currently the most widely studied type of meditation. It’s also the form most used in medical settings.
Mindfulness meditation benefits after breast cancer treatment
During cancer treatment, women often experience constant change and feelings of uncertainty. When treatment ends, survivors may experience fear of recurrence, loneliness, concerns about physical appearance or anger at the disruption cancer caused to their life. Left unaddressed, serious anxiety, depression or other psychological distress may leave women unable to tend to their health.
Mindfulness meditation can help survivors acknowledge and accept difficult emotional experiences and embrace change – bringing a sense of control and allowing healing to begin.
For breast cancer survivors, the benefits include:
- Improved sleep (and less fatigue), by helping you settle your mind at bedtime
- Increased focus, allowing you to pay attention to the matter at hand and suppress distracting information
- More emotional control, so that you can disengage from emotionally upsetting thoughts and focus better on processing new thoughts
- Stress reduction, as you learn to incorporate mindfulness throughout the day
- Symptom relief for depression and anxiety, especially in survivors under the age of 50, who are more likely to have persistent mental distress after treatment
How to do mindfulness meditation
To get the full effects, experts suggest meditating daily, even if only for a few minutes.
While many people do it on their own, guided meditations may help bring your focus back to the present moment when needed. No matter how you practice mindfulness meditation, these tips will enhance your experience:
Find a quiet space where you won’t be disturbed. Get comfortable using a cushion or chair and sit up straight, but don’t stiffen your upper body. Gently cross your legs if you’re on the floor. If sitting in a chair, have the bottoms of your feet touch the floor. With your upper arms at your sides, let your hands drop onto the tops of your legs.
Feel your breath
Close your eyes and feel the physical sensation of your breathing. Don’t control your breathing but follow it as your chest falls and rises and your belly expands. If it helps your focus, mentally note “breathe in” and “breathe out” as you inhale and exhale.
Guide your focus
Your thoughts will inevitably wander, especially if you are a beginner. That’s OK. When you become aware of your mind wandering, simply notice the thought that’s distracting you. Let it go and gently return your awareness back to your breathing. When your mind wanders again (and it will), don’t get frustrated. This aspect of meditation builds your mindfulness skill. The more you do it, the better you will get at being mindful outside of your meditation.
Finish with a daily intention
When you are ready, open your eyes and look around. Before you move, notice your environment, your thoughts and how your body feels. Take a moment and make an intention or goal that will guide your day.
To learn more about mindfulness meditation or to access free guided meditations, turn to the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. If you are suffering from persistent depression or anxiety, lasting two weeks or more, reach out to your primary care provider.