I think a lot and have always assumed the millions of thoughts banging around in my head were productive. Sure, I end up worrying nonstop too, but that’s the price of thinking things through and problem solving, right?
With apologies to Descartes, I tend to believe, “I think, therefore I am working the problem.”
Over the years, infertility, miscarriages and breast cancer worked my mind to exhaustion. When I was under siege, sleep was the only break I got and it never came easily or lasted long enough. As soon as I opened my eyes, the thoughts were there again, right where they left off.
As painful and fatiguing as all that thinking (and worrying) was, I felt compelled to keep at it. In truth, I was in a continuous thought loop and couldn’t get out.
What I needed was a time-out.
My first cancer time-out came as a complete surprise from an unlikely source. My very long diagnostic and testing phase was finally over and I was facing a mastectomy. Cancer had been my 24/7 companion for five months and inhabited my every thought. I was beyond tired, scared to death of the surgery, and my mind was racing.
Basically, I was freaking out.
Suddenly, out of nowhere this popped into my head: Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? SpongeBob SquarePants!
The theme song from a cartoon show I watched with my son shocked my other thoughts silent and made me laugh, something I didn’t think was possible until it actually happened. Its blessed relief brought home a new realization. If I had any hope of managing stress, I had to find a way to turn off the nonstop thought machine.
After SpongeBob intervened, I started actively looking for ways to quiet the noise in my head. I didn’t know it at the time, but what I was looking for was mindfulness and SpongeBob had handed it to me on a silver platter.
Funny movies and people who made me laugh (a big thank you to my sister Amy) became go-to tools for bringing me into the present moment. Plus, it’s impossible to laugh and worry at the same time, letting joy and hope become real possibilities.
In addition to laughter time-outs, I discovered yoga and brisk, 30 minute walks. Even mild exercise pumps up my feel-good endorphins, giving me a break from negativity and worry. More importantly, focus on physical activity reduces a great deal of meaningless mental activity. Moving my body became an active meditation, giving my monkey mind a much needed time-out.
And then there is breathing. We all do it, every minute of every day, but mindfully doing it is life altering. I learned that focusing on my breath, drawing it in and letting it out slowly, instantly rewards me with a moment of calm. With a little practice, I now find myself automatically taking a deep breath whenever I feel overwhelmed or stressed.
If you need a time-out from cancer (and who doesn’t?) possibilities are all around you. If you’re up to it, socialize with loving and supportive family and friends. Take a warm bath. Practice gratitude. Listen to music. Go for a walk. Tap into whatever works for you.
Cancer time-outs are much more than momentary pauses. They reduce stress, calm your limbic system and bring you back a little bit of yourself. They also clear your mind and free up the space and distance you need to problem-solve complex issues.
Living with cancer is overwhelming and takes a huge amount of energy. Taking care of yourself requires getting serious about cancer time-outs, even if it takes SpongeBob SquarePants to help get you there.