Stress-Free September: Feeling A Negative Emotion

When was the last time you felt stressed?

And what did you do with that stress?

Most people are inclined to…

Bury it. 

Ignore it.

Buffer it with food, alcohol, shopping…

Although these actions may help you feel better temporarily, they will not help you to recognize and process stress in a healthy way.

“Stress is caused by being ‘here’ but wanting to be ‘there’.”

Eckhart Tolle

In today’s group meditation, I discussed steps  for processing stress in the moment.

Being here now is the key to stress relief! 

Here are the steps I use to process stress in the here and now (Feel free to screenshot this and save as a favorite on your phone for when stress arises):

  • Close your eyes.
  • Focus on your breath.
  • Take note, “I feel stress right now.”
  • Move towards it and get to know it, like a friend.
  • Try not to resist the feeling.
  • Where do you feel it in the body?
  • How does it feel?
  • Go to that part of your body (out of your head) and notice:
  • The color of stress
  • The shape
  • The texture
  • The feeling
  • Whether it is constant or changing
  • Does it have fast or slow vibrations?
  • By getting to know the stress, you are taking the wind out of it’s sails.

Did you know that on average, a negative emotion will only last for 90 seconds in the body? By processing stress in the moment, you can move through this negative feeling and then move on with your day.

There is nothing you can’t handle right now.

Coping with Scanxiety Through Mindfulness

You know that familiar feeling that arises when your next CT scan is coming up?

A nervous tension in the pit of your stomach…

Heart racing…

Palms sweating…

Maybe your mind is completely engulfed in all the worst possible outcomes.

The cancer is back!

The current treatment is not working! 

The mass is growing!

There are new metastases in my lungs, I just know it!

This, my friends, is scanxiety, or Scan-Associated Distress. And according to this study, upwards of 80% of patients with cancer experience this.

You are not alone. 

But, this is no way to LIVE

When your mind hauls off on these worst case scenario tangents, you are living in thoughts based in the future and creating negative feelings and physical effects on your body that you experience today. 

So what can you do when you experience this type of stress?

Practice grounding yourself in the present moment. Here are some ideas:

  • Try the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. I previously wrote a blog on this here. This allows you to use your 5 senses to bring your mind’s current experience back to the present moment and away from all those pesky thoughts.
  • Be with nature. It sounds like tree-hugging hippy advice, but in all seriousness, if you can go outside and be with a tree, just do it. Watch the gentle movement of the leaves and branches. Inhale deeply the scent. Works every time.
  • Use a scent to ground you. I like to dab a little bit of lavender essential oil on my wrist and deeply inhale this calming scent when I begin to feel stress. 
  • Set aside some designated time for worrying. From 7:30 pm-8:00pm today, I worry. When worries come up outside of that window, redirect.
  • Exercise! This will get your endorphins flowing allowing you to feel better. In particular, yoga may be particularly useful because of the added mindfulness practice associated. But honestly, do a type of exercise that you enjoy.
  • Practicing regular mindfulness meditation will also allow you to more easily recognize the negative thought pattern and return your awareness to the current moment.

The present moment is your place of healing and peace.

How to Decrease Stress

I’m sure you’ve wondered at some point in your life, how can I decrease my stress level?

Unfortunately, it seems a common problem in modern society to be chronically plagued with high-stress levels.

What happens in your body when you experience stress?

A stressful event leads to thoughts that create biochemical changes in the body’s chemistry. The primitive brain reacts instinctively to stressful thoughts, releasing hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine. These act on the body to create a heightened state of awareness. Blood pressure rises. Heart rate increases. The immune system and digestive systems are suppressed. In short, the body enters a physical state of stress. 

These protective reflexive changes in body chemistry would be helpful to us if we were actually in physical danger. But in modern times, often our stresses are often more chronic, subtle issues that are ever-present in our lives–

We must meet this deadline.

We must face this cancer diagnosis.

We must be the perfect mom/dad/friend/daughter/son/husband/wife. 

Living in a chronic state of high stress is damaging to our psyche and our bodies. 

Fortunately, there are things you can do to reverse chronic stress.

For one, you can pay attention to the thoughts you have that create the stress in the first place. Check in with your mind and notice the thoughts.

Second, you can practice detaching from the stressful thoughts that create this toxic biochemistry. To do so, it’s best not to argue or struggle against the thoughts. Instead of identifying with the constant stream of thoughts going on in the mind, try instead to identify with the observer of those thoughts. You get a lot of practice doing this in meditation.

Third, bring in your higher brain, the cortex, responsible for rational thinking to help recognize the negative stressful thought pattern and offer yourself an alternative thought. For example, one I find helpful is “My mind is offering these stressful thoughts, but I know my true self is calm.” 

Lastly, regular meditation can help you become more in touch with the true essence of yourself, as well as the present moment. Our mind’s natural state is calm, and it wants to return to that state if we can only learn to get out of our own way. The trick is giving up the struggle and surrendering to what is. 

I invite you to join me this week in practicing this centering thought when you notice stress arising:

“I choose calm when faced with stress.”

Meditation for Stress Relief

This month Circle of Hope is featuring “Stress-free September.” I will be hosting a series of mindfulness meditation group sessions, as well as weekly blog posts, with the theme of living a more stress-free life. Check the website for details:

What is stress?

 a physical, mental or emotional factor that results in bodily and/or mental tension due to the perception that it is overwhelming.

The key is, your perception is a huge part of the existence of stress in your life.

What are some ways that mindfulness can help you cope with stress?

  1. I have previously written about the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy tools called the “thought download” and the “thought model.” You can brush up on that here.

These are very useful tools for helping you cope with stress.

Step one:

You can do a thought download to basically do a mind dump onto a piece of paper. It sometimes helps to just get all the thoughts off your chest.

Step two:

Then, you can look through the thought download and identify the thoughts that are leading to your stressful state of being. 

The goal is to identify how you perceive a stressful situation, so that you can work through alternative ways of thinking.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you have cancer and are receiving chemotherapy.  If you are persistently having the thought “Chemotherapy is going to make me nauseous, and I dread throwing up,” this may create a stressful hormonal state in your body that may actually contribute to the event’s occurrence. 

Current model:

Circumstance: chemotherapy

Thought: This is going to make me nauseous.

Feeling: dread

Action: perseverate over nausea, increase stress hormones

Result: Create physical and mental conditions conducive to experiencing nausea.

Notice your pattern of thinking.

Step three:

Next, you tweak the thought line in your model. It may look something like this:

New model:

Circumstance: chemotherapy

Thought: This powerful medicine is going to work only on the cancer cells, and leave my normal body cells untouched.

Feeling: optimistic

Action: lowered stress state of the body

Result: Create conditions conducive to wellness, despite therapy.

The trick is, when designing your new model, you must choose a new thought that is actually believable to you.

Now, does this mean that you can mitigate every potential negative effect of your treatment through your mind? That remains to be seen, but we do know that maintaining a positive attitude through the treatment of cancer has positive effects on the outcome. (You should still follow all of the advice of your medical team 😉 )

2. Another tool that is helpful to relieve stress is daily meditation. Meditation promotes your ability to focus more on this moment, rather than times past or times in the future.

Your mind and body are not distinct. Many people speak of the mind-body connection, but this underestimates the true interconnectedness of these two realms. More accurately, we can refer instead to the bodymind. The mind and body are one and intimately affect one another. 

By working on our mind’s ability to live in the present moment through practicing mindfulness meditation, we increase our ability to respond and react to stressors in our lives in a less reactive manner. We build the skill of adjusting and resetting quickly in the face of stress. This stabilizes stress hormones.

Try it today: when something stressful comes up, allow the stressful thoughts to pass just like you do during meditation, and instead focus your attention on your slow, deep breathing in this present moment.

You have the resilience and resources to handle any situation.

Help! I Can’t Sleep!

One of the most common concerns amongst patients with cancer is difficulty sleeping. I hear this from my patients all the time…

I can’t fall asleep. My mind is racing.

These medications are making me jittery (thanks a lot, steroids.)

I awaken multiple times at night.

I am too exhausted to sleep.

Progressive muscle relaxation is a good tool for combatting both stress and anxiety, and insomnia. 

One study published in the Journal of Clinical Nursing found that this type of meditation improved sleep quality and reduced overall fatigue in women undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. 

There are several ways to perform this exercise. I will detail one method here that utilizes breath and muscle tension/release. 

  1. Find a comfortable position lying down (or whatever position you choose to sleep in.)
  2. Gently close your eyes and bring your awareness in to your breath.
  3. Take 3 slow deep breaths, focusing your attention on the movement of air.
  4. Beginning at the crown of your head and progressively moving down through the various muscle groups in the body to the tips of your toes, progressivly tense and relax your muscles one group at a time like so: Bring your awareness to the muscle group. Upon inhale, tense the muscle. As you exhale, relax and release any tension in the muscle allowing it to rest heavy.
  5. Once you have moved through your whole body, return your attention to your quiet, natural breathing.

Another good method is using a visualization; for instance, slowly pouring warm liquid light down the body.

For the next few weeks, if you sign up for my email list at, I will send you a free 10-minute progressive relaxation using warm liquid light. If you are already on my email list and want a copy, shoot me an email at and I’ll send it to you.

May you sleep peacefully!

Mindfulness for Longevity

Do you want to live a longer, healthier life?

Some very interesting research is being done on if and how mindfulness meditation can extend your life.

What has been found is that regular mindfulness meditation not only extends your life, it also maintains your wellness during that time.

All of our cells contain chromosomes. These house the DNA/genetic information for our very existence. Chromosomes are capped on the end with repeating sequences called telomeres. When we are young, we have long, luscious telomere caps that serve to protect the genetic information in our genes during cell division. Thus, genes can function properly. As we age, telomeres shorten as segments are lost during cell division. The function of genes begins to fade as the chromosome length shortens.

Telomere length predicts survival overall, and survival from specific potential causes of death including heart disease and cancer (1).

In other words, people with shorter telomeres are more likely to die of any cause, including cancer.

How is telomere length maintained?

Our cells use an enzyme called telomerase to maintain telomere length. It serves to replace telomeres back onto the ends of chromosomes when they shorten during cell division.

What can you do to lengthen telomeres?

Mindfulness meditation! Research on meditation has shown that telomerase levels are increased in individuals who meditate. This results in maintenance of longer telomeres.

Lavretsky and colleagues published their results in 2015 (2):

After just 8 weeks of meditation for 12 minutes per day, telomerase levels increased by 43%!!! This is more effective than any drug or supplement ever sold.

Through meditation, you can literally reverse the aging process at the cellular level.

Dr. Linda Carlson and colleagues have studied this in breast cancer patients, showing that participation in a mindfulness based cancer recovery program resulted in maintained telomere length in healthy cells relative to controls (3).

In sum, meditation has direct effects on our DNA at the cellular level to create more optimal conditions for a longer, healthier life. 

Start or continue your practice today with this free meditation series:

Tool #8: 4-7-8 Breathing

Today I’m going to teach you another breathing tool that is commonly used in yoga called 4-7-8 breathing. 

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Place your tongue just behind your upper front teeth and relax your jaw/mouth. Leave it there for the whole exercise.
  2. Exhale any air in your lungs through your mouth.
  3. Now, take an inhale through your nose counting to 4.
  4. Hold your breath for the count of 7.
  5. Slowly exhale through the mouth making a whooshing sound for the count of 8. 
  6. Repeat steps 3-5 for an additional 4 breaths.

When and why should you do this type of breathing?

4-7-8 breathing has been shown to be helpful to reduce anxiety, to help with falling asleep, to control/reduce cravings and to reduce anger responses. 

Deep breathing appears to deactivate pathways in the brain that trigger anxiety.

You may also find it helpful to use when you are meditating and find your mind wandering off frequently. Introducing this breathing exercise helps focus your attention back on the breath in the present moment. 

If you like this exercise, you may also find this post on diaphragmatic breathing to be helpful.

As always, I hope to hear from you below with your thoughts on this exercise!

Tool #7: Building Your Happiness Muscle

Have you ever had one of those days when you wake up and from the moment you get out of bed, negativity sets in? 

Maybe you are rushed, or worried about something happening later that day. 

Maybe you are in pain.

Maybe you checked Facebook and saw a terrible news story.

Did you know that you can actually work to build your own resilience and positivity when faced with these negative feelings through mindfulness?

Our brains are naturally wired to focus on the negative. This is what saved us from the saber tooth tigers in prehistoric times. 

By consciously bringing to mind the positive, you can build the parts of your brain that help you think and feel more positive.

Here’s how:

  • When you have a good experience, however big or small, notice it. You enjoy a warm cup of tea. Your child smiles at you. Your favorite song comes on the radio. The warm sun shines on your skin. It doesn’t have to be earth shattering, just something that induces some amount of joy.
  • When you notice something positive, stay with the feeling for 30 seconds. Practice feeling it in your body.
  • Where is it? What’s the quality of the sensation? For instance, you might notice warmth in the chest. You might feel a smile on your lips. You might feel a calming, slow vibration in your heart. Whatever it is, notice the feeling of it in your body.

Focusing on positive experiences releases the feel good hormone dopamine. The more frequently and longer you focus on these positive moments, the more you build your “happiness muscle” and enhance the neural network involved in these good feelings. 

Repeat this process many times a day. It won’t take long to notice that overall, you are feeling happier and calmer in your daily life.

What To Do When a Loved One is Diagnosed with Cancer

As a first year medical student, one of my worst fears came true. My mom was diagnosed with cancer. It was terrifying to think of potentially losing her, and my mind was racing with all of the terrible side effects that the chemotherapy, surgery and radiation might cause her. 

Fortunately, she made it through the treatment with flying colors, and is still here today living her best life. It’s because of her diagnosis that I selected the field of radiation oncology for my career. 

One thing I remember from that time was having the strong urge to do something. What could I do? How could I help? Was there something I could do that would actually make a difference?

The number one thing I would recommend doing for your loved one who has received a cancer diagnosis is to introduce them to the concept of mindfulness during their treatment and recovery.

We know that the mind can help heal the body, so by spreading this knowledge you can actually improve your loved one’s experience of their treatment, and their outcome!

Recently, I was able to discuss with my mom her approach during treatment. She has a strong faith, and there was a lot of prayer! Also, I’d like to share with you today her mindfulness technique that she used when receiving radiation treatments. You can pass this along to your loved one.

Mindfulness exercise for radiation treatment:

On the treatment table, close your eyes and relax, focusing on slow deep breathing, extending the exhalation longer than the inhalation. You may choose to say a prayer asking for God’s healing power, and asking for wisdom and skill to be with the techs and medical team. Once the treatment begins, visualize a shining ray attacking the cancer cells (and only the cancer cells) specifically sparing any normal cells nearby. Zap, zap, zap…each cancer cell or group of cells wherever they are hiding are destroyed by the ray. Healthy cells are left unharmed. Imagine your own immune cells being recruited in and gearing up to join the ray in the fight against the cancer cells. All the while, remain present with your breath.

You may choose to share the exercise with a loved one who is heading into radiation therapy. You may also consider providing a gift for your loved one, such as a personalized meditation pack to be used during their treatments or some private coaching sessions with me. Head to my website for more information:

Feature Publication: Psychologic interventions improve survival in breast cancer

On occasion, I am going to highlight a scientific study that I find interesting, helpful or exciting. This week I am discussing a trial published in the journal Cancer in 2008. (1) It is titled “Psychologic intervention improves survival for breast cancer patients: a randomized clinical trial.”

Isn’t it amazing to learn that psychologic interventions (which included mindfulness techniques) not only improve quality of life, but also extend survival?!

In this study, 227 patients with breast cancer who had undergone surgery and were preparing for subsequent treatment were randomly assigned to psychologic intervention with periodic assessment, or assessment only.

What was the intervention, you might ask?

The interventions were conducted in small groups and directed by 2 psychologists. The groups met for 4 months of weekly sessions, followed by 8 monthly sessions for a total of 26 sessions (39 therapy hours) over 12 months.   The goals were reducing stress, improving mood, altering health behaviors and improving adherence to cancer treatment.

Strategies included:

  • progressive muscular relaxation for stress reduction
  • teaching problem solving skills
  • identifying supportive friends and family for help
  • teaching assertive communication techniques
  • increasing daily activity, such as walking
  • improvement of dietary habits
  • advice on managing treatment side effects.

In two separate publications, it was reported that the patients receiving the interventions had improvements in all endpoints compared to the control group. These included psychologic, behavioral, health, immunity, and survival.

Patients who regularly attended the intervention sessions had a reduced risk of breast cancer recurrence and lower risk of dying from breast cancer. They also had reduced risk of death from all causes. This was independent of known predictors of breast cancer progression, such as lymph node status, receptor status, histology and others.

In the paper’s discussion, it is noted that patients in the intervention arm with the greatest reduction in distress were those who practiced the progressive muscular relaxation daily, and remembered (daily) that continued stress could adversely effect their health. They learned that stress could be controlled/reduced by using the mindfulness technique they had been taught. Other publications have also shown that uncontrolled stress results in poorer survival in cancer, possibly via hormonal and immune mediated pathways.

If you have cancer, this paper highlights why you should add a daily mindfulness exercise to your routine. I have 2 free progressive muscular relaxation sessions on my website for you to try (Day 1 and Day 7):