Filed under: Cancer.
The first step in getting well is to understand how your beliefs and emotional responses have contributed to your illness. The next step is to find ways of influencing those responses in support of your treatment. In this chapter we will tell you about a relaxation process for reducing the effect on уоur body of stress and tension associated with the onset of cancer and with the fear of the disease, which itself becomes a major source of stress. We will also show you how to use mental imagery, once you are relaxed, to create positive beliefs that will activate your body’s defenses against disease.
For many cancer patients, the body has become the enemy. It has betrayed them by getting sick and threatening their lives. They feel alienated from it and mistrust its ability to combat their disease. Learning to relax and influence the body, on the other hand, helps people accept their body once again and their ability to work with it toward health. The body again becomes a source of pleasure and comfort and an important source of feedback on how effectively people are living life.
Relaxation also helps reduce fear, which can become overwhelming at times with a life-threatening disease. Cancer patients are often terrified they will die a prolonged, painful death, impoverishing their families through medical expenses, and doing their children psychological harm by the absence of a parent. Such fears make it almost impossible for patients to develop a positive expectancy about the outcome of their illness. But learning to relax physically helps them break the cycle of tension and fear. For a few minutes at least, while (hey are relaxing their bodies, cancer is not the overriding reality of their lives. Many patients report that they have a different perspective and renewed energy after using relaxation techniques. It appears to be a way of recharging their batteries. With the fear reduced, it is easier to develop a more positive expectancy, resulting in a further decrease in fear.
It is important to note that, in clinical terms, relaxation does not mean spending an evening in front of the television, having a few drinks, or talking with friends. Although these certainly can be pleasurable activities, laboratory studies show that such forms of “relaxation” do not result in an adequate discharge of the physical effects of stress.
Regular physical exertion is one way of unstressing. Regular exercise acts out the equivalent of the “fight-or-flee” response, which we discussed in Chapter 4, permitting the body to discharge the buildup of tension. It is not accidental, in our opinion, that many patients who have done very well in our program engage in some form of regular physical exercise. Many joggers and runners say that running is their “therapy” and that during the running, they are able to get a perspective on their problems that they cannot get just by thinking about them. (Later in the book we have a chapter devoted to this subject.)
Still, it is not always possible for people to engage in physical activity whenever they feel stressed. Modern life often requires considerable effort to handle all the arrangements necessary for physical activity. Fortunately, researchers have developed a variety of simple relaxation techniques— certain forms of meditation and progressive relaxation, autogenic training, and self-hypnosis, to name a few. Most of these techniques involve some form of mental concentration. People may focus their attention on a symbol or a series of mental images designed to calm the mind, or they may go through a series of instructions in their mind to relax the body.
Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard University has documented the positive physical benefits of several of these techniques for reducing stress in his book, The Relaxation Response. Although all of the body’s physiological responses to these various mental relaxation techniques may not be understood, research has amply demonstrated that the techniques discharge the effects of stress to a much greater degree than do the activities conventionally considered relaxing.