Using Mindfulness Meditation to Cope with Cancer and Coronavirus

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology, Social Work

APRIL 07, 2020

A cancer patient practices mindfulness meditation to relieve COVID-19 stressThese are stressful and challenging times. Coping with cancer is a major challenge under the best of circumstances, and the new rules of life under our current public health crisis, the coronavirus pandemic, make everything more difficult. We are all looking for strategies to manage our anxiety and to fill our time productively. Mindfulness meditation seems an ideal possibility.

Many of us have practiced meditation at some point in our lives and know how useful it can be to manage stress. This is a good time to remember those benefits and begin or return to the practice of just sitting quietly and trying to concentrate on the moment.

Some of the very simplest mindfulness routines and exercises are especially helpful when you are feeling anxious or stressed. Becoming comfortable with one or a few techniques will serve you well now and in the future.

Mindfulness Meditation Exercises and Tips

  • Find a comfortable place to sit. Uncross your legs, let your hands fall naturally into your lap. If you want, close your eyes.
  • The "square breath" exercise involves breathing in for a count of 4, holding it for a count of 4, and then exhaling for a count of 4. Repeat. The "4" works well for most people, but you can certainly make it a smaller or larger number if that works better for you.
  • Another exercise is alternate nostril breathing. This can be a bit tricky to learn, so search on YouTube or Google for directions.
  • Some people find it very difficult to sit still and do better with a walking meditation. In that case, the instructions are to repeat a mantra or phrase with each step. I have known a few people who meditated best while engaged in a routine task like dishwashing or folding laundry. If that works for you, again, just repeat the phrase over and over as you perform the task.
  • It is not going to be possible to really clear out your mind. The common description of our unrelenting thoughts is "monkey brain." The chatter continues, and all you need to do is let the thoughts pass right through your head. Do not be self-critical about them, just let them come and go. I find it helpful to visualize a wave crashing with the thoughts and then receding and taking them away.
  • Try deep belly breathing: sit comfortably and put your hand on your belly to be sure that it rises and falls with your breaths. Concentrate on taking deep and slow breaths (as in the "square breath" exercise above). Generally when we are anxious, our breath is more shallow, so this is a good way to slow down and center ourselves.
  • There are a number of apps and other online resources that you might like. Two popular apps are Insight Timer and Headspace.
Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
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