Mindfulness meditation can make a big difference in the treatment experience of patients.
"Meditation is really placing your attention on something intentionally for a period of time,” said Emily Herzlin, a certified mindfulness meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction instructor. “Mindfulness has to do with being in the present, choosing to bring your attention to the present moment, with an attitude of nonjudgment or kindness. ... So when we’re mindful, we’re trying to be with what’s here in this moment with as much gentleness and kindness as possible.”
Herzlin, who studied mindfulness-based stress reduction at UMass Medical School Center for Mindfulness in Worcester, Massachusetts, worked in the integrative medicine program at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York and teaches in the integrative health and well-being program at Weill Cornell Medicine.
She was introduced to mediation as a teenager, while she was dealing with chronic health issues of her own and close family members were undergoing cancer treatment.
“I found it to be incredibly helpful, both in terms of my relationship with my own body as well as the cycle of worry and anxiety that comes up when people who you love are struggling or ill,” Herzlin said. “It was a time of day where I could notice my thoughts, notice my anxieties and say, ‘Thank you, (but) not right now.’”
Here are some of the areas where Herzlin said meditation can help patients:
Sleeplessness and anxiety
“The stream of worry and anxiety that can sometimes keep us up at night — meditative techniques can help to give the mind something else to pay attention to, to make a choice to shift the attention from the swirling thoughts of anxiety to something more neutral or calming, like the breath, or relaxing the muscles of the body, or phrases of lovingkindness, things you can say to yourself that are kind or gentle to yourself,” Herzlin said.
Some prompts suggested by Herzlin include “May I be safe,”
“May I be peaceful,” “May I be kind to myself” and “May I live with ease.”
Treatments and Imaging
“When we practice mindfulness meditation, we usually choose an anchor for our attention, like the breath or the body, and then whenever our attention goes away from that anchor to thoughts about the past or the future, we try to pause and gently notice, stop and say: ‘Oh, I got lost in something else. That’s OK, let me come back to my breath or to the body,’” she explained.
Those same techniques can be used in doctors’ offices while undergoing tests or coping with the stress and side effects of treatment, she said.
Meditation techniques for pain, Herzlin said, differ from person to person. The best practice for some is to shift the focus to something more soothing. For other individuals, it may be more helpful to face pain with compassion.
“A mindfulness technique is to actually be present with the pain, to allow the pain to be there, to not try to push it away, to even try to treat it with lovingkindness with friendliness,” she said.