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Quieting Cancer-Related Stress: The Art of Relaxation

Some people coping with cancer may find themselves in a state of chronic stress. The relaxation response is a powerful tool to reduce stress and improve overall well-being. You can reach this state of calm through focused mental attention and a passive attitude toward intrusive thoughts or activities. The relaxation response helps with stress in the moment; and if practiced regularly, the relaxation response slows breathing rate, relaxes muscles, reduces blood pressure, and effectively counteracts chronic stress. Various methods can be used to elicit the relaxation response, ranging from breathing exercises to visual imagery to mindful repetitive behaviors.

Below are four methods that have shown effectiveness in improving mood, quality of life, and physical symptoms of people living with cancer.

Relaxation Technique 1: Deep Breathing

While attention to breathing is part of many relaxation strategies, it can also stand alone as a quick way to relax your body and mind. Your breathing becomes your focus while any thoughts or activities other than your breathing is disregarded for that moment. Deep breathing involves breathing into the lower belly, or abdomen, and is often accompanied by a slow, steady rhythmic pattern of breathing in, holding the breath, and finally exhaling. It is the repetition of this breathing action that contributes to relaxation.

Breathe in for a count of five down into your belly, hold for five counts, and then slowly breathe out completing the last count of five. Repeat this breathing pattern 10 times.
This exercise should minimize your stress and anxiety level.

Here are some additional resources to help guide you:

Relaxation Technique 2: Mindfulness

Mindfulness practice involves focused attention to the present moment or action. There are many ways to practice mindfulness. Pay attention more closely in any given moment, noticing rather than judging the experience. Daily mindfulness practice involves focus and attention while engaging in common daily activities. Mindful activities can include cooking, drawing, gardening, listening to music, or doing a puzzle, among other things. One specific form of the practice is called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which has been well-researched and shown to have positive effects on patients when practiced regularly. Some of the benefits of MBSR practice include improvement of cancer treatment-related cognitive changes, better sleep, and improved mood.

Here are some additional resources to help guide you:

Relaxation Technique 3: Guided Imagery

This technique uses the power of the imagination to create mental images that assist in reducing anxiety and stress. Images can be constructed in our minds anytime-either with our thoughts or with direction from an outside guide. A successful imagery experience includes attention to details of the image as if you were there, and the ability to dismiss outside thoughts while redirecting the focus back to the image. Studies have shown that guided imagery can help reduce fatigue, anxiety and depression, bodily discomfort, and sleep disturbances in patients undergoing cancer treatment. Guided imagery is most beneficial if it is repeated frequently over time. Experiment by listening to a guided imagery script or create your own by closing your eyes and slowly and methodically imagining more details of your favorite place — letting yourself be fully there, then slowly return to the present.

Here are some additional resources to help guide you:

Relaxation Technique 4: Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)

This exercise involves slowly tensing and relaxing your muscles in a progressive pattern throughout your body. Start at one end of your body — perhaps your feet — and tense, hold, and relax the muscles counting to five for each step in this area several times. You will soon notice the difference between the tension and relaxed states. Progress in a linear fashion through your muscle groups and end with a tensing and relaxing of the entire body. Studies have shown that with regular practice, PMR can reduce stress levels and reduce depression and anxiety. Some people find that noticing the difference between a tensed and a relaxed muscle state enhances the feeling of relaxation. Given the more active nature of this relaxation strategy, proceed with caution if you have an injury or have recently had surgery. You can also do this activity with focused attention to each muscle group without tensing if preferred.

Here are some additional resources to help guide you:

There are many strategies for aiding acute and chronic cancer-related stress. Experimenting with some of these techniques may offer you new approaches to managing stress and finding ways to relax while coping with cancer. Some cancer care centers may offer integrative medicine programs that provide instruction in these techniques.
For further reading, check out the Iris Care Team’s top resource picks for relaxation techniques:

More resources for relaxation:


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Reviewed by the Iris Clinical Editorial Board
This article meets Iris standards for medical accuracy. It has been fact-checked by the Iris Clinical Editorial Board, our team of oncology experts who ensure that the content is evidence based and up to date. The Iris Clinical Editorial Board includes board-certified oncologists and pharmacists, psychologists, advanced practice providers, licensed clinical social workers, oncology-certified nurses, and dietitians.


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