Putting your best foot forward
So many of us spend our days focusing on the future and evaluating the past, that we rarely take a moment to consider the present. Our mindfulness session held monthly at Cancer Centre London aims to teach people to be purposely aware of the moment, the here and now. Right now, what can you feel? What are your current surroundings? What body part is currently supporting your weight?
Kids are a great example of being present in the moment; they’re in the garden and touching the grass, they explore their surroundings and they’re aware of the sensation of the wind against their face. They are present and aware of their senses. Over time we lose this awareness and our minds are continuously charged. We have a tendency to rush around from one thing to the next without absorbing the present moment.
Our brains naturally wander, we’ve all experienced a close friend talking to us and we’ve drifted off in our minds, maybe you’re thinking about dinner, what stage you are with treatment, making a ‘to do’ list, wandering how the kids are. But mindfulness will train you to bring your mind back; bring it back from worrying about your next treatment date, back from thinking about the impact cancer is having on your life, back from the thoughts on your past and how life used to be. Mindfulness is an excellent opportunity for you to take a moment (maybe just 5 minutes or 20 minutes or even an hour), where you can forget about all your worries and stresses, and just bring your attention and awareness back to the current moment which will reduce stress and other physical and emotional symptoms.
So why be mindful?
Before I attended this months’ Mindfulness talk at Cancer Centre London I hadn’t actively practised mindfulness. I was aware of what it was and the ‘fashionista’ it has recently become but didn’t feel that I was the ‘type’ of person for it, but I gave it a go and I am so glad I did. The talk lasted one hour and a half and was a fantastic introduction into the effectiveness of mindfulness, how to practice it and the results! There’s been a plethora of scientific evidence showing that meditation can help to relieve particular symptoms and improve quality of life for people with cancer. The Cancer Research UK website goes into a good amount of detail on these studies but research has shown that mindfulness can:
- Improve your mood
- Improve your ability to concentrate
- Reduce severe depression and anxiety (studies have looked at mindfulness based stress reduction)
- Boost the immune system
How does it work?
Naturally we are all predisposed with a ‘fight or flight’ response. Whilst this is a superb natural mechanism within our body, our brain tends to respond with ‘fight or flight’ for non-life threatening situations; causing us to react too quickly with a hazed mind-set. The brain is a marvellous organ which continuously adapts and mindfulness can train us to not jump to this ‘fight or flight’ response but to encourage awareness of the actual situation so we’re not simply reacting to the adrenaline pumping in our body. MRI scans have shown that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the brain’s “fight or flight” center (the amygdala), appears to shrink. This primal region of the brain is involved in our body’s response to stress as it’s associated with fear and emotion. Whilst this element of our brain is shrinking, the pre-frontal cortex, which is associated with higher order brain functions (like awareness, concentration and decision making) becomes thicker. Therefore these MRI scans show that just 8 weeks of mindfulness practice weakens the connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain, whilst strengthening the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration. Adrienne Taren (researcher studying mindfulness at the University of Pittsburgh) says that “The picture we have is that mindfulness practice increases one’s ability to recruit higher order, pre-frontal cortex regions in order to down-regulate lower-order brain activity.” Put simply, our more primal responses to stress seem to be replaced with more thoughtful ones.
During the session at Cancer Centre London we participated in a range of exercises to teach us how to practice mindfulness ourselves. The first was simple stretching, but keeping the mind aware of the stretch, the pull in the muscle and the weight in your feet supporting your body weight. Continuous reminders were needed to ‘bring the mind back’ as it has a tendency to wander.
Another part of the session involved ‘mind walking’. This was a refreshing idea to me, something which is so easy that we all do daily, but could be so effecting. Walking slowly just being aware of your left foot ‘peeling’ off the ground and then the placement of your heel back on the ground and the roll of your foot flat down and then the peel of your right foot was such an explicit awareness and attention task focusing the brain fully on the current task. We reiterate this movement every day with no consideration at all. So even if it’s just walking to the toilet, take your time and do your best to be aware of the movement of your foot, the weight change, the pressure change and peeling action and with your attention on this, just for those few minutes, you give your mind a rest from the rollercoaster it’s on thinking about cancer and all other aspects of your life.
The session also covered the mindful body map which was a superb exercise to really make you aware of your body, we took a moment to focus on each individual body part, whilst maintaining awareness of your surroundings and bringing the mind back should it start to wander. I found this one the most tough to maintain my attention but with time I’m sure it’ll get better. The beautiful idea behind this is that when we bring our attention to our senses, in movement or in sitting meditation, something settles within us. It’s like coming home. It’s not suggesting that all your life difficulties go away, but we learn to develop new perspectives and deeper insights, almost like a different way of seeing, combined with the ability to develop a practice where calm and happiness is at the root of our being.
Mindfulness can help us embrace moments of uncertainty and fear in our lives which is of the essence when you have cancer. If you are a cancer patient at Cancer Centre London I would highly recommend you contacting Suzanne Smith on firstname.lastname@example.org for details on our next Mindfulness session with Dr Hoffman at Cancer Centre London and you can also reap in the effects of mindful thinking and experience the powerful change you notice when we take a moment to slow down and start being fully present in our lives.