Welcome to the Mindfulness for Resilience in Illness series. This is part one of a series of four articles offering basic ways to cope with treatment for serious illness. We created this program for teens and young adults with cancer in collaboration with the folks at Whil who have awesome meditations for young people and the project team at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Pediatric Pain Clinic. We summarize some meditation and stress management skills to help build resilience during an illness.
Alec and Carleigh, two teens diagnosed with cancer, reflect on how having a serious illness has affected them socially, emotionally, and physically:
“Getting cancer put a halt on my current life. I had to take a year off, move back home, and spend every other week in the hospital to receive treatment.” – Alec, diagnosed at 19
“For me having cancer changed how I thought about my body and what I thought I was going to do in the future. There was a lot of uncertainty.” – Carleigh, diagnosed at 16
A cancer diagnosis can first bring feelings of shock and fear. This is often followed by information overload with treatment options and medical regimens. Naturally, it can feel overwhelming, especially when you are young. That’s what Alec and Carleigh shared with us. Alec noted how alone he felt being back home and so far away from college friends from freshman year. Carleigh found that she lost a sense of confidence after being so on top of things and loving life. She watched her friends go on with the typical things high school friends do while she had to be in treatment. It was hard. It was a normal reaction to stress.
When your life is suddenly turned upside down, it can be helpful to get your bearings. One way to do that is to get grounded or find your center by practicing mindfulness. This means finding ways to respond skillfully to the stress or overwhelming emotions and thoughts you experience. It’s about learning to be aware of the present moment with kind attention. When practicing mindfulness, you do not judge your experiences, thoughts, emotions or sensations. Instead, be curious about them and skillful in how you respond.
One of the most basic ways to be mindful is to focus on your breathing and tune in to your body. How do you do this? It is actually quite simple. Once you know the basics you can try for one minute, a few minutes, or even a half hour.
Practice: Learning to breathe
To begin, it is helpful to be in a quiet, comfortable place. Finding an “anchor” to focus on, like your breath, is a way to direct mindful attention to the present moment. Read this script to yourself and try it on your own.
Find a quiet place to sit (or lay down) in a way that will allow you to simply be in the present moment. Allow your body to become still as best as you can. Sit quietly and begin to bring your attention to your breathing. Become aware of the movement of your breath, the inhale and exhale. You may notice the airflow in your nostrils or the rise and fall of your chest or belly. Just notice the sensation and rhythms. Don’t try to get anywhere or force anything. Simply tend to your breathing with kind attention.
You may notice your mind wander as thoughts, emotions, or sensations arise. When you notice that your attention has wandered off—as the mind does naturally—bring your attention back to your breathing. The mind can act like a puppy, darting off in many directions. Be gentle, without judging yourself. Let it be. When your mind starts to drift, simply begin again, directing your attention to the present moment.
Sometimes it can be helpful to focus on your feet resting on the floor or your hands on your lap as an anchor for your attention. Or it may be comforting to hold a smooth stone as the object of your attention or count from 1 to 5 on an inhale and count 1 to 5 on an exhale. These are ways to guide you to be in the present moment. You can experiment and find what works for you.
Whenever you find your mind wandering off the breath, gently bringing it back to the present, observing the moment-to-moment low of your breathing or your anchor. Use your breath to help you tune into a state of relaxed awareness and stillness. As your meditation ends, you may want to acknowledge that you have spent a few moments nourishing yourself.
Practicing a few moments of mindfulness can help you get grounded and feel balanced in difficult, overwhelming times. Once you are comfortable with your own anchor—your breath, your feet, your belly—make it a point to direct you attention there. This is especially helpful when you start to feel overcome by emotions or sensations as we will see in the next article. Finding balance can seem hard sometimes, but with practice, mindfulness helps get you there.
As you develop your mindfulness skills, you will be able to practice just about anywhere—between classes, on the bus, you name it. There are many ways to practice mindfulness. If something does not work, try it again. Or try it a different way next time!
Read more from the Mindfulness for Resilience in Illness Series:
[Part 2] Dealing with Difficult Emotions
[Part 3] Dealing with Difficult Thoughts
[Part 4] Practicing Self-Kindness
Mindfulness Exercises | AnxietyBC
Mindfulness: How Do I Cultivate It? | Greater Good Science Center
Stop and Smell the Roses: Mindfulness Tips | BodiMojo