Breast cancer survivors face more than just treatments in their journey toward thriving. Once treatments like surgery, radiation and chemotherapy are over, survivors go through a period of physical healing. That can include mental and emotional ups and downs, anxiety and fear about the future.
It’s more common than some might think for breast cancer survivors to experience anxiety, depression and insomnia. In fact, studies have shown a marked increase in survivors reporting these symptoms than what is present in the general population.
In a 2021 study published in the National Library of Medicine’s archives, researchers estimate approximately 25%, 10%, and 28% of cancer patients suffer from clinical depression, anxiety, and insomnia, respectively, which is roughly double the rates of the general population.
Researchers attribute the higher prevalence to the shock caused by a cancer diagnosis, the burden of cancer treatment and the correlations between these symptoms and fatigue and pain.
If you’re a breast cancer survivor that has been through treatment, you may know that many doctors treat anxiety, depression and other psychological symptoms pharmaceutically. The drugs they prescribe can help a patient find some emotional and mental stability and help curb symptoms like anxiety, depression and insomnia.
But, these drugs can also induce those same symptoms in patients, as well as other issues like gastrointestinal symptoms, weight gain and sexual dysfunction. Long-term use of these kinds of drugs can lead to increased risk of dementia, diabetes and more cancer incidents.
While drugs might be a good answer to some patients’ symptoms in the short term, using mindbody therapies as interventions can also help establish some sense of stability and combat those symptoms of insomnia, anxiety and depression.
We’re talking about meditation, yoga and other ancient body practices as well as newer therapies like mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) training, progressive muscular relaxation (PMR) and the emotional freedom technique (EFT) – also known as ‘tapping’.
Why Mindbody Therapies Help
Mindbody therapies are techniques that help synchronize the mind and body functions, promote relaxation and increase overall wellness.
Studies show that the daily practice of these techniques can change the way your body responds to stressors, like the shock caused by a cancer diagnosis and the burden of cancer treatment. Mindbody therapies can also help with:
Fuzzy Headed Feelings
Anxiety-related physical symptoms like upset stomach
Studies also show that mindbody therapies can help reduce anxiety and depression as well as insomnia because they fundamentally change the way your body responds to stressors.
Basically, daily practice of mindbody therapies train your mind and body functions to work together toward homeostasis and wellness instead of existing in a reactionary state.
Mindbody therapies help change the body’s reaction to stressors by doing the following:
Creates a physical relaxation response that combats stress
Generates positive thoughts, which research shows boosts the immune system
Opportunity for social support, which studies show is beneficial for wellbeing
The Power of Routine
The key to mindbody therapies is discipline, dedication and devotion. You have to do the work regularly, weave these practices into your daily life and allow the magic of routine to change your outlook and inner chemistry.
If you’re anything like me, you’re laughing right now. That’s because being consistent isn’t easy. And some symptoms that can occur alongside anxiety, depression and insomnia are a decrease in motivation and inattention. Many breast cancer survivors struggle with maintaining a routine. Dedicating time, attention and energy to any kind of daily practice requires grit. It’s hard, and for many people it doesn’t come naturally.
My best suggestion is to look at the whole thing as a process and, indeed a practice instead of concentrating on an outcome.
Dopamine Bonus Points
Concentrating on goal accomplishment can be a great addition to your mindbody therapy toolbox, though. That’s because dopamine is naturally released when you accomplish goals – a chemical that is connected to memory and attention, pleasure and reward. Use that concept as another way to combat depression, lack of motivation, anxiety and insomnia
Incorporate activities that naturally increase dopamine into your daily routine by:
Getting enough exercise
Eating a balanced diet
Listen to music
Drink Green Tea
Get Enough Sunlight
The mindbody therapies of meditation and yoga have both been shown in several studies to increase dopamine levels.
Mindbody therapies seek to improve health through mindfulness, breathing exercises, postures and movements and relaxation. Among these therapies are ancient practices of yoga, qi gong and tai chi.
These practices focus on bettering the mind-body connection, which is something that’s always present. This mind-body connection can show up as butterflies in your stomach before a big event or your mouth watering when you think about the dinner you’ll be having later tonight. Your body reacts to your thoughts, and vice versa.
Meditation is one of these techniques that has been scientifically studied and shown to create several beneficial physiological responses. Benefits include reduced levels of stress hormones, reduced heart rate and breathing rate, as well as blood pressure.
Most newer techniques are remastered versions of ancient practices like yoga and meditation. Take, for example, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Training. This eight-week course was created by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts in 1979. It teaches how to use meditation for reducing stress levels and anxiety. MSBR courses have been shown effective for chronic pain, eating disorders, depression, anxiety and insomnia.
Progressive Muscular Relaxation (PMR) is another exercise used to alleviate anxiety, insomnia and other emotional symptoms. It’s a two-step relaxation technique that reduces stress and helps build awareness of muscle tension. The practice involves tightening and loosening different muscle groups, alongside coordinated breathing.
Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), or tapping is a relaxation method that involves using your fingers to tap gently on the body’s acupuncture points along the meridian lines, mentioned in Chinese medicine. This is usually self-administered but can be performed in a group setting with a leader, like in a yoga class.
Five MindBody Therapies To Try
Gratitude Practice – Take 5 minutes every morning to list as many things you’re grateful for as possible. Sometimes it is helpful to assign each gratitude to a physical object, like a bead or small stone and transfer each bead from one container to the next while concentrating on each thing you’re grateful for until the five minutes have passed.
Breathing Techniques – Focus on deep breathing by using one of a many number of breathing techniques that quiet your mind and reduce stress hormone levels.
Meditation – Use ancient meditation techniques, which are generally paired with breathing techniques, to reduce anxiety, insomnia and stress.
Mindful Movement – Yoga, qi gong and tai chi are all mindful movement practices that can help reduce anxiety, depression and stress levels. The social aspect of exercise classes can also improve wellness.
EFT Tapping – Use your fingers to gently tap along the body’s natural meridian lines with this technique to find relief in the moment from anxiety, depression and insomnia.
Healing your body, mind and spirit
Everything feels out of sorts when you’re going through breast cancer treatments. And it's normal for anxiety, depression and insomnia to continue even after treatment.
It’s important to remember that you’re not broken, you’re healing. And using mindbody therapies are steps you can take to increase healing as you continue the journey.
Metin, Z.G., Karadas, C. Izgu,N., Ozdemir, Umut Demirci, U. (2019).
Effects of progressive muscle relaxation and mindfulness meditation on fatigue, coping styles, and quality of life in early breast cancer patients: An assessor blinded, three-arm, randomized controlled trial. European Journal of Oncology Nursing, (42), pp. 116-125.
Elizabeth Boath, Rachel Good, Anna Tsaroucha, Tony Stewart, Sheila Pitch & Adam J. Boughey(2017). Tapping your way to success: using Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) to reduce anxiety and improve communication skills in social work students,Social Work Education,36:6,715-730,DOI: 10.1080/02615479.2017.1297394
Ningsih, S.F., Karim, D., Febriana Sabrian, F. (2016). The effectiveness of emotional freedom technique (EFT) therapy to anxiety of breast cancer patients stage II and III. Repository of Universitas Riau. https://repository.unri.ac.id/xmlui/handle/123456789/7761
Psycho-Oncology (22)7, 1457-1465