Experiencing it in my bones: how mindfulness can sooth cancer anxiety

Experiencing it in my bones: how mindfulness can sooth cancer anxiety

I’ve been participating in the Mindfulness Summit, a project organized and implemented by Melli O’Brien and Matt Dickinson. O’Brien interviews experts ranging from journalists and psychologists to neuroscientists and religious teachers about the concept and practice of mindfulness.

Day 7’s featured guest was Rick Hanson, a neuro-psychologist. He had much to say about research on the brain that clearly demonstrates the positive impact of mindfulness. For instance, a practice of meditation has been shown to reduce the amygdala, which regulates emotion in the brain. As far as I understand it, a smaller amygdala means a less reactive and anxious person. His website is here.

As I look back over my life, I can hardly remember a time when I didn’t struggle with anxiety. But that struggle became a full-fledged battle after I was diagnosed with cancer. Cancer removed the last protective shell, thin though it was, between me and my perceptions of vulnerability. I felt that I was in the rifle sighting of the universe’s best sniper.

That has proven to be a hard perception to shake. My commitment to mindfulness, which is my New Year’s resolution, is a commitment to learning how to feel safe again, to trust the world around me.

As I listen to these speakers, I realize that I’m probably not doing it right. And by that I mean, mindfulness isn’t like medication or therapy. It isn’t a means to an end. It’s a practice. It’s being aware, being observant, curious, and accepting.

Hanson’s recitation of an amazing number of research conclusions about mindfulness was powerful. But, for me, all of the detail of that research is forgotten because I heard these words so much more clearly: mindfulness isn’t enough.

“People have actually to experience deep in their bones again and again and again that their core needs are taken care of. Otherwise the brain tips into the red zone….experiencing core needs met [takes] fuel away from those ancient fires of craving.” Rick Hanson

I don’t know fully what he meant by these words. He certainly believes that we need mindfulness, that it is “necessary but not sufficient.” I think he believes that we need a good deal more compassion and kindness, a moral drive to improve the world.

But I’ve been lingering on the concept of “experiencing it in [my] bones.” And, I think I have an insight about how mindfulness can be connected to dampening down those fires of anxiety and fear.

The experience of learning you have cancer happens again and again and again. Sometimes the experience is literal. Other times it is a re-living of the news. You see the face of the doctor, you see the scans, the photograph of the tumor. And you feel that experience deep in your bones.

I have been in remission now for almost three years. Hearing that I am NED (no evidence of disease) is, for me, an experience of one of my core needs being met. I have heard these results many times, first every three months after treatment and now every six months. I’ve gotten clear test results, clear CT scans, and clear cystoscopies.

But I have not experienced this deep in my bones. And that is where mindfulness comes in. While I am ultra-sensitive to what my body feels like when I’m anxious, attentive to the knot in my stomach, the throbbing head, the nausea, the tightness in my chest. I am so familiar with the feeling of fear that it is sometimes odd to not feel it.

I am not, however, ultra-sensitive to what my body feels like when I’m safe, when I’m comfortable, when I’m protected, when I’m relieved, despite having these experiences many times.

My revelation, and I hope that it is in keeping with Hanson’s intent, is that I need to be mindful and aware and accepting of the good news that I’ve heard. I need to listen to my doctor’s words and let them reverberate inside my head. I haven’t experienced this in my bones.

My challenge, my commitment, is learning to re-live hearing those words and to learning how to be aware and accepting of feeling safe. I want to take fuel away from those ancient fires.

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