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Power of mind-body medicine to fight cancer

Angela Buttimer, MS, NCC, RYT, LPC, a licensed psychotherapist at Thomas F. Chapman Family Cancer Wellness at Piedmont, shares how mind-body medicine can help fight cancer.

It's funny, you never hear anybody say, "I need more stress in my life. I need it to be more hectic." Right? No, we don't say that. We all have so much stress in our lives, don't we? Does anybody have any stress?

Yeah, the hands go up. Of course. It's a part of life, and we're not going to be able to change that today with mind-body strategies.

But what can we change? We can change how we respond to external stressors and we can change our internal stressors. And that is where your personal power lies, that's where you can begin to diffuse your stress and mitigate some of the negative impacts in your life.

The dangers of chronic stress

The World Health Organization says that by the year 2020, just a couple of years from now, stress and its cousins, anxiety and depression, will be the number one disability in the world. That's something, isn't it?

And you might find this interesting. It's not the acute stressors that get us; it's the chronic, daily, low-grade stress that catches up with us, that dumps cortisol into our bloodstream and creates inflammation and disease.

Three simple ways to reduce stress

My hope for you is that you're not going to be one of those statistics that they are predicting. Tonight, I'm going to give you three very basic, simple strategies to help you begin to reduce your stress that you can start applying right away. Y'all ready for that?

Working with your breath

What I want you to do right now is check in with your breath and notice what you're doing. How is your breathing? Anybody holding the breath or breathing shallowly into the chest?

We tend to do that we get really focused, when we get tired, when we get stressed out. Guess what? That creates a cascade of stress responses, so we don't want that.

Try this. Breath in through your nose right now, all the way down into your belly. Create a big balloon a Buddha belly. Let the belly out. Long, slow exhale. Let's do this together a couple of times. Inhale through the nose, fill up the belly, and then exhale. Good, let's do it again. Inhale and exhale. Good. One more time. Inhale through the nose, fill that belly up, and exhale.

Very quickly you can begin to diffuse your stress. When you do that deep belly breathing, you're engaging the parasympathetic nervous system, which is very quickly creating a relaxation response.

Here is my request for you tonight. I want you to keep that breathing going for the rest of the evening. Can you do that?

If you forget and you start holding your breath again, when you remember again say, "Oh yeah, deep belly breathing," and come back to it. Because you're training your mind-body how to breathe in a way that creates a relaxation response. So that's the first strategy.

Body awareness and body relaxation

Check in with your body right now. Where are you holding stress and tension? Where are you uncomfortable in the way that you're sitting? Sometimes we'll just endure, won't we? We'll just sit in this way that's uncomfortable, and we'll just keep going with that. Right? And we get so used to it, we don't realize that we're doing it.

Some of us are walking around with our shoulders up to our ears like this. And we don't even realize it. Or we've got the grumpy face on and we're sitting in the staff meeting, and people are like, "Wow, what is up?"

We don't know. It's that resting mad face. We're clenching our jaws. The brow is furrowed. And you might think, "Oh yeah, that's my colleague," but it might be you. (laughs) Right?

I want to get you to put your feet flat on the floor for a minute. And sit in your chair in a way that is most comfortable. And let's systematically begin to relax the body together.

So, keep that breath going. Deep belly breathing, right? And let's relax your hands and your feet. And your arms and your legs. Release and relax. Your pelvis, hips and backside. Release the belly where we hold a lot of tension. The chest, open your chest, relax the chest. Open the shoulders up. The back, the upper back and the lower back, release and relax that. Your neck and your head. Check in with your jaw and your mouth. Are you clenching your teeth? The forehead and around your eyes, begin to release and relax that.

Now I want you to go back through the body from head to toe and catch any residue of tension that's left, and release and relax that now.

You can do this throughout your day. Number one, it's being self-aware. What am I doing in my body? How do I feel in my body? And number two, it's creating a wellness habit of systematically relaxing your body throughout the day. You can even create a timer that goes off at your desk at 9 a.m. or noon where you know, "Oh, let me check in and open the body."

When you do this, you reduce that cortisol level in your bloodstream. You release feel-good hormones that they've talked about with diet and exercise – it works with mind-body strategies as well. With mental and emotional wellness, we get those feel-good hormones.

When you are relaxing your body, you have more energy. You feel much better mentally, emotionally and physically. And you will be more effective in everything that you do. Every conversation, every activity, every meeting you walk into. If you will take the time to relax, you're going to feel the powerful impact of that.

Dr. Lissa Rankin, who wrote "Mind Over Medicine," is an integrative medicine physician. One of the things that she reports in that book is that when the body has a relaxation response, your natural healing repair mechanisms are enabled.

So, your body can work at its best for you when you're in a relaxation response. On the other end of that, when you are in that chronic stressful place, those natural healing mechanisms are disabled. It's not able to work for you on your behalf. So, using the breath and the body awareness are two very simple strategies to keep yourself in optimal mental, emotional and physical health.

Take charge of your thoughts

The third strategy is taking charge of your thoughts. If I put a little cloud above everyone's head, I wonder what we would see.

If we could see into your mind, I'm sure you're listening and saying, "Oh, this is so fascinating." But you're also thinking, "What am I going to eat for dinner?" We've been talking about food all night, right?

We have so many thoughts up here. Scientists are telling us that we're thinking about 70,000 thoughts per day. That's a lot of thinking happening up here. But here is what's interesting. They believe that most of those thoughts are repetitive. We're just going over the top ten tunes, if you will.

Thinking that we're going to find some grand new solution or get control over that person or that problem finally if we just think hard enough about it. And so, we had some ground-breaking research in integrative oncology through Dr. Candace Pert who wrote “Molecules of Emotion.”

What she found is that we have neuroreceptors – as many as in the skull brain – around our hearts and in our guts. What she found is that this self of ours is in a constant dialogue. Our immune system is listening to our thoughts, beliefs and emotions. It all works together.

That's what we mean by integrative. In integrative medicine, we care for the whole person, not just the systems that are being presented physically, mentally or emotionally. We look at it all in its complexity.

So, take a moment now to think about what you're thinking on. Think about what you've been thinking today. What have you been telling yourself? What have you been telling yourself about yourself, about your friends and family, about your colleagues? Is it positive or is it negative?

So, the egoic mind, if we let it run away with us, it will keep coming back to fear-based thinking, worry-based thoughts. We have to put our hands on the steering wheel and turn it intentionally and purposefully to start thinking positively, to create a positive mindset, which will aid you in cancer prevention and cancer recovery.

So, we have a saying in integrative medicine that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Meaning that every time you're indulging in negative, worry-based thinking, you're creating a neuronal patterning in your brain that's going to make it easier to think negatively the next time.

When you're successful in replacing that thought with something more positive, something more empowering, then you're creating a new neuronal firing in the brain that's going to support you in thinking more positively the next time.

I want to encourage you to be mindful of what you're telling yourself. What are the storylines that you're feeding yourself and are they helpful or are they hurtful?

I had a woman come to me in my coaching practice, she was an executive at the top of her game, but she came to me with debilitating migraines. She was terrified. No one could figure out what was going on with her. And so, with about six weeks of work in mind-body strategy, some of what I'm teaching you tonight, those migraines dissipated, she was able to get back to work, and she is really thriving now in her personal and professional life. I have seen this over, and over, and over again in my practice and at Chapman Cancer Wellness with cancer patients and their families.

So, let's review the three strategies, the three mind-body strategies:

  • Breathe

  • Body awareness

  • Take charge of your thoughts

So, I'll leave you with this. From a place of self-honor and self-care, I want to encourage you to do those three things daily. A little bit goes a long way.

Like Shayna and Jennifer were saying, we're not looking for an overhaul, just a tweak. If you do a little bit of that each day, you will be quantum leaps ahead in your wellness by the end of this year.

Knowing about these strategies and actually practicing them are two different things. I want to encourage you to practice these on a daily basis for your optimal wellness because you deserve it. I believe that you’ve got this and your future self will thank you for it.

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