Yoga will optimize your coping strategies in cancer survivorship, greatly improving quality of life

If you’ve been following for a while, you’ve heard me say many times that yoga is SO much more than just the physical practices/exercises (asana). The full practice of yoga is a holistic mind-body practice for harmonizing our whole being, including guidance for thought patterns/behaviors, breathing practices, concentration, and meditation, along with the physical practices (click here for more info This whole mind-body program not only gets our physical bodies healthier, stronger, and more flexible, but also helps our minds to work with more clarity, balance, peace, and joy (and thereby less anxiety, tension, agitation, or confusion). How does it do this?? By training us in practices that not only tone our bodies, but that cultivate healthier mindsets, coping strategies, mental resilience, and tools to better manage our emotions. And just like anything, the more we practice all of these mind-body techniques, the better we get at them, and the more they become our baseline condition, making life and all of its challenges simpler and easier.

Let’s face it, cancer is the shits. I mean it. It is not easy. I recently learned that a cancer diagnosis is actually defined as a type of trauma in the DSM-5 (the book health care providers use to categorize mental disorders), and there is a whole literature on the traumatic experience of cancer. It literally rocks our worlds, threatens everything about our lives including our lives themselves, and puts us through innnumerable intense challenges of body and mind. I hear so many survivors (in active treatment or beyond) saying things like “Will I ever feel normal again?”, “Will this dark cloud hanging over me ever pass?”, “Why can’t I get back to my fun former self?”, “I can’t stop feeling sad and frustrated”, “My body is wrecked and I’m so down on myself”, and “Nobody around me understands”. But then, on the other end of the spectrum, some women seem to breeze through this awful experience, minimally affected, confident, active, and unscathed. So why the difference? Of course, there are clear differences in our bodies and how they handle treatment, and so some women suffer more severe side effects than others. Not to mention that our cancers are all different, so the treatments themselves vary as well. But some of this difference, I believe, comes from how we cope and the attitude that we bring to the table. From the lense through which we see this cancer experience. We all have different coping strategies that we have developed throughout our lives, from early childhood through adulthood, and all of our experiences along the way. These different patterns for how we cope and deal with stress have been studied extensively in cancer survivors, and have been shown to correlate with many outcomes, including overall quality of life, mood/depression/anxiety, fatigue, and even pain. Examples of different attitudes or coping strategies include: acceptance, positive refocusing, refocus on planning, positive reappraisal (attaching a positive meaning to a negative event in the context of personal growth), fighting spirit, catastrophizing, anxious preoccupation, helpless-hopelessness, rumination, and blame (self or others).

These coping strategies and attitudes, of course, are not fixed. They can be changed, but it takes some recognition and some effort. We have all developed the strategies and attitudes we have for a reason, likely related to trying to protect ourselves in some prior challenging situation. And in no way do I mean to suggest that our suffering is our own fault, for being the way that we are. I only mean to say that this is an area where we have some control over how our experience goes. We can learn to cultivate the healthier, more adaptive strategies and attitudes, and thereby help ourselves struggle less with the situation. For example, one can see how catastrophizing is one of the maladaptive strategies, and how it just leads to more anxiety and distress. Why would we want to keep doing that to ourselves, if we can see it and learn to change it? On the other hand, refocus on planning helps us to rationally consider what next steps we need to take to get through, giving us some sense of control and easing anxiety and fear of an unknown future. Similarly, acceptance (as opposed to ruminating on “why did this happen?” and struggling against things we cannot change, like the fact that we have this cancer diagnosis) brings a sense of peace and calm to our minds, allowing us to see with more clarity and less emotional reativity. You can go on and on, and investigate each quality and understand how it might have positive or negative impact on your state of mind, and your overall quality of life. Maybe take a few minutes looking at that list of coping strategies/attitudes and see if any of them sound like things that you commonly do in the face of stress or difficulty. Or specifically in the context of your cancer. Do you see them as helpful or harmful? Are there any that you would really like to down-regulate? Or any you’d like to get better at?

In the medical mental health world, we use something called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to help us identify and examine our thoughts/beliefs/attitudes, and then change them as needed to improve emotional regulation and optimize coping strategies. This type of therapy has been studied in breast cancer survivors, and found to help a number of things including sleep, fatigue, anxiety, relaxation, positive mood, and others. If you are really struggling, ask your Dr if you might be a candidate for a referral to a therapist to help you in this way.

In a prior blog introducing the idea of the 8 Limbs of Yoga, linked above, I describe an awesome TED talk in which a psychotherapist referred to yoga as “the original cognitive behavioral therapy”! Because just like in CBT in a therapist’s office, yoga helps us to look deeply and honestly at ourselves, to see how we react and how our minds and bodies respond to those reactions. Then yoga helps us by guiding us with ideas on more adaptive ways of seeing and thinking, and then asking us to practice those techniques over and over, until we begin to incorporate them. In doing so, yoga is truly a transformational practice. It not only improves our bodies and how they work, but with some effort and study, yoga can change the way our minds work, leaving us with healthier attitudes, thought patterns, habits, and coping mechanisms. Yoga trains us in some of the very things that CBT teaches, such as acceptance, positive reappraisal, trust, non-attachment, etc. This is why all of my yoga practices have a theme, an idea or mental practice to go along with the physical practice. And why I write so many blogs on such topics. Because I believe, especially for us cancer survivors, yoga’s ability to improve our minds may be even more important than the amazing benefits it carries for our bodies.

So yes, cancer sucks big time. That’s a fact. But we don’t have to let it suck the life, the fun, the love, and the joy out of us. With a little attention to our mindset and how we approach the experience, we can adjust our sails and traverse the suffering with so much more ease, minimizing side effects and optimizing our mood, quality of life, and overall experience. Why not give it a try?!


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