Using a Mind-Body Connection to Help You Cope During Cancer: An Expert’s Perspective

January 11, 2024
Sarah Swan, DClinPsych, MSc, BSc (Hons)

Sarah Swan, DClinPsych, MSc, BSc (Hons), is a breast cancer survivor and a United Kingdom-based consultant clinical psychologist who has worked with adults with a range of mental health difficulties. Dr. Swan provides training, supervision, and coaching to other psychologists and acts as a consultant to a range of organizations, including the Association of Clinical Psychologists UK. She is the author of Coping With Breast Cancer: How To Navigate The Emotional Impact Throughout Your Journey, available online. You can follow Dr. Swan on Facebook.

Being diagnosed with breast cancer has been the most challenging thing I have ever had to face. I had fantastic medical treatment delivered by a great team of doctors and nurses. But that was just for the physical treatment of the cancer. Cancer also has such a huge emotional impact, which I felt was largely neglected by standard treatment. Even as a clinical psychologist, I found it difficult to cope with my cancer diagnosis and treatment. So, today, I am keen to share ideas and strategies based in psychological theory that have helped me through my own cancer experience. One of these ideas is the importance of connecting with the body.

Connecting with your body during cancer

Treatment for cancer can have a significant impact on the body. Many people with breast cancer, for example, have surgery, such as a lumpectomy or mastectomy. They may or may not also have reconstructive surgery, either delayed or at the time of the cancer surgery. This can lead to further scars elsewhere on the body if those areas of the body are used to help create the new breast, which can lead to changes in body image. Meanwhile, chemotherapy and other cancer treatments can lead to side effects such as pain, nausea, and peripheral neuropathy, which can cause you to feel a sense of pins and needles in your hands and feet. If you are experiencing side effects like these, you may consciously or unconsciously try to disconnect with your body to try to avoid or lessen these unpleasant experiences during cancer treatment.

However, this disconnection can have an impact on your emotional well-being. Connecting with your body is an important aspect of noticing and managing your emotions because emotions are not solely mental experiences; they are also closely intertwined with physical sensations. This mind-body connection plays a crucial role in how we experience, interpret, and manage our emotions.

The benefits of mind-body connection during cancer

One way to create a mind-body connection during cancer is through mindfulness practice. During mindfulness, we focus on what is happening in the present moment. By practicing mindfulness and paying attention to what the body is telling us, we can better cope with the challenges that inevitably arise during cancer and its treatment. Other methods of promoting a mind-body connection include deep breathing, meditation, and progressive muscular relaxation.

Some of the benefits of creating a mind-body connection during cancer include:

1: Increased self-awareness

Paying attention to sensations in our body can help us become more aware of our emotions as they arise. Often, emotions arise as physical sensations in the body, such as a tight chest when we feel anxious or a heavy feeling when we feel sad. By tuning in to these sensations, we can identify and label our emotions more accurately.

2: Early detection of emotions

When we are in touch with our bodies, we are more likely to notice the physical signs of our emotions early on. This can help to prevent emotions from escalating to the point where they feel overwhelming or unbearable. 

3: Becoming more present

We spend much of our time dwelling on the past (why didn’t I get that breast lump checked earlier?) or worrying about the future (how am I going to cope with starting chemotherapy next month?), and very little time living in the present. This is often a trigger for intense and difficult emotions. But it is important to remember that the present moment is usually tolerable. Mindfulness encourages us to reconnect fully with the present moment, which can help ground us and help us feel better able to cope. Regular practice can also help us to observe our emotions without judgment and respond to them in a healthier way.

4: Improved emotional regulation

Once we have become aware of our emotions, engaging in activities that promote a mind-body connection, such as deep breathing or meditation, can help us regulate our emotions. These techniques activate the body's relaxation response, which can help reduce the physical effects of stress and anxiety. This then tells the brain that there is no longer a threat, which can help slow or break the vicious cycle between our mind and our body’s responses.

5: Better coping with difficult emotions

It can be a natural response to try to avoid or suppress our difficult emotions. But this can actually maintain the distress in the long-term. And, continuing to suppress emotions can worsen physical health problems. Connecting with our body and how we experience emotions within it can help us learn to tolerate these emotions and, in time, know that they will pass.

6: Less acting on impulse

Strong emotions can trigger our “automatic pilot” mode, which often causes us to respond impulsively without really thinking through whether that response is helpful. Connecting with your body and recognizing emotional triggers can give you the space to pause, reflect, and make more thoughtful decisions instead of acting on impulse.

7: More tools to respond to emotions

When we're aware of our body's responses to different emotions, we can choose how to respond in a more effective way. For example, if we notice tension in our shoulders and realize we are stressed, we can use some relaxation techniques to help release the tension. We may also ask for some help from a partner or friend to help resolve the issue causing the stress.

In today’s culture, there is a message that we should just “be happy” and “look on the bright side.” There is an emphasis on “thinking positive.” But when going through a cancer diagnosis and treatment, it is normal to experience painful emotions, such as fear and anger, and it may not be possible to just think differently. Placing more emphasis on connecting with your body can help you to identify the emotions you are experiencing and manage them more effectively. This will help you both physically and emotionally to tolerate the treatment journey.

Read more about how to get started with practicing mindfulness, meditation, and yoga during cancer. Please note these links take you to other pages on Cancer.Net.

The author has no relevant relationships to disclose.

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