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Published on June 27, 2018

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The Power of Mindfulness

Experiencing fear, anxiety, loss and grief is part of being human. Yet after a cancer diagnosis, this can be especially true.

There’s really no facet of life that’s not touched when someone begins cancer treatment. “Undergoing cancer treatment affects work, family, finances, relationships, body image, goals for the future and so much more, says Brenda Ling, CSW-PIP, a clinical social worker at Avera Medical Group Integrative Medicine. “There’s a need to process loss and grief with all of those changes.”

That’s why Ling focuses on helping patients at Avera Cancer Institute in Sioux Falls throughout their cancer journey. With over 30 years of experience, she understands the unique emotional challenges that both they and their loved ones face during treatment and beyond.

One of the tools that Ling teaches her patients – and practices herself – is mindfulness. In fact, Ling says, it’s a practice that can help anyone deal with the struggles of life.

Mindfulness – What Is It & How Does It Help?

Mindfulness is a practice of paying attention and waking up to the present moment. It allows you to live in the fullness of the current moment – without being lost in memories of the past or overwhelmed by the worries of the future.

It’s important to note that mindfulness is not about denying or ignoring negative feelings. Instead, it’s about recognizing them and observing what you’re experiencing without judgment.

A common example that Ling sees is the struggle with fear or anxiety. “With mindfulness, the intent is not to avoid the feelings of fear or anxiety. The reality is that cancer and treatment can be scary. Instead, through mindfulness practices, you acknowledge what you’re feeling in the present and take a moment to say, ‘Before I decide what I’m going to do or how I’m going to think or act, I’m just going to calm myself and create some space.’”

Ling says that when you create that emotional “space,” you’ll be able to stay calm and think more clearly. Over time, you may find that you aren’t as reactive to what is going on in your life.

And despite its name, mindfulness doesn’t just have benefits for the mind. It’s an integral part of healing the whole self – mind, body and spirit.

Several published research studies have documented benefits of practicing mindfulness, such as:

  • Decreased stress symptoms
  • Decreased anxiety
  • Improved sleep quality
  • Enhanced emotional processing
  • Enhanced coping with the effects of chronic illness
  • Enhanced immune and brain functioning

One of the great benefits of mindfulness is its ability to lower stress.

Stress causes the brain to excrete stress hormones which can increase the body’s inflammatory response. When this stress response goes on for a long period of time, you can become sick because the hormones – such as cortisol – weaken the immune system’s ability to fight disease.

“Inflammation causes a direct conflict with healing,” says Ling. “But when you lower stress, you also bring the inflammation down which can improve your body’s ability to heal.”

Types of Mindfulness Practices

Getting started with mindfulness can be as simple as taking a few minutes to slow down and recognize your breathing and thoughts. There are also a variety of practices, including:

  • Body scan and tension release
  • Focused breathing
  • Meditation
  • Singing Bowls relaxation and meditation
  • Tai Chi
  • Yoga

And when it comes to mindfulness, Ling emphasizes that patience is key. “Because it’s a practice, it’s not something you master right away. You get better as you train your neuropathways to go toward positive self-talk and relaxation instead of the fear route, for example.”

Ling describes how patients who incorporate some sort of mindfulness practice on a daily basis say that they’re able to go into a more relaxed state in the midst of crisis, apprehension or stress in a much quicker way.

“Just like anything else, the more you practice it, the easier and more automatic it becomes,” she adds.

Patients undergoing cancer treatment at Avera Cancer Institute in Sioux Falls can find mindfulness kits that include handouts about mindfulness practices and an iPad and earbuds where they can listen to meditations while receiving treatment.

If you’re interested in learning more about how mindfulness practices can impact your cancer journey, check out an upcoming Renewing Life class. This eight-week course is open to anyone who has been affected by cancer – both patients and their loved ones. It’s designed to empower participants to live authentically, view challenging life events as an opportunity for growth and create plans for renewed living.

For more information, call 888-422-1410 or 605-322-3211.

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