You know, it’s completely normal to experience feelings of fear and worry during your cancer journey. These feelings can show up for anyone, and nothing about that should make you feel like you’re not doing enough. Maybe you’re afraid that the cancer will come back, or that a bad day means that something isn’t working, or even that you’re doing something “wrong”. None of these things are AT ALL true, and the good news is that you don’t have to stay trapped in those negative emotions or thoughts! There are some very practical ways to stop that cycle, and bring calm and healing back into your mind. We’re going to explore three steps as outlined by Dr. Judson Brewer in his book, Unwinding Anxiety.
Step 1: Map out your habit loops that happen around anxiety and fear.
All habits have three elements: a trigger, the behavior associated with that trigger, and then the result. The trigger starts the habit - it can be a thought, emotion, physical sensation, or even seeing a place. For example, fear can be triggered by sitting in a doctor’s office where a frightening diagnosis was received, or even a particular smell. The behavior is the habit itself. It can be worrying, thoughts of self judgement, biting your nails, etc. The result is how you feel after the behavior. In the short term it could feel good, like eating ice cream, but in the long term? Not so much.
Here is an example:
Trigger: negative thought.
Result: distraction or avoidance
Result: feel more anxious.
So how do we break this habit? Curiosity and awareness. These are two powerful mental muscles that help you to change habits! And the good news is that they grow stronger with practice.
You don’t need to blame and shame yourself for what you are doing, because we have ALL created some habit loops that are not good for us. Personally I think this is really key to becoming aware of what is going on, and taking action on how to improve it. By breaking down your habit into the three parts you can recognize how it started, and how unrewarding or unhelpful it is to you.
Step 2: Update your reward system around a behavior.
The more rewarding a behavior is, the stronger the habit. To change the behavior you have to address how the rewards of that behavior feel. If we are going to update the reward value, break worry and other habits, we need awareness. What does that mean? Awareness is paying attention vs. going about our day on autopilot. By paying attention to the results of behavior in the present moment, you can break that habit of autopilot. You’ll begin to see and feel how rewarding or unrewarding the habit is for you. This new information helps you reset the reward value on the old habit, and elevates better behaviors. This also helps you to see that a behavior is not rewarding. For example, people who want to stop smoking: instead of saying, “I need to quit - smoking is bad.", they start paying attention when they smoke, and note what is rewarding or not. Negative rewards would be things like the bad taste of chemicals, the stink of smoke, etc. When you ask, “what do I get from this?” you can start to see what the result of that behavior feels like. Another example goes like this.
Trigger: Anxiety over upcoming scan.
Behavior: Getting anxious about body sensations.
Result: Seeing how getting anxious leads to more anxiety
Trigger: Anxiety over an upcoming scan.
New behavior: Getting curious about body sensations.
Result: Less anxiety
Step 3: Learn how to find the better offer to get you out of the habit loop.
Let’s talk about finding that bigger better offer for your brain! The third step is an internally based bigger better offer that helps you step out of your old habit loop. One way to do this is to bring a kind and curious awareness to those sensations and feelings. This practice will help you move from feeling like you have to do something to fix the situation to just observing your experience and watch the problem lessen on its own. Curiosity calms the restless driven quality of “do something!”
How to practice curiosity:
When you start to feel anxious about something, focus on the strongest sensation that you feel. Is it tightness, pressure, restlessness, shallow breath, tension, or maybe a pit in your stomach? Then ask if it is more on the right side or left side? Front or middle, where do you feel it most? Then let out an inner “hmmmmm” and note if that is on the left, right middle or back?
Another idea to help you get into this third step is using your breath. Paying attention to your breath is a great way to get in the present moment. If you are getting caught up in a habit loop, get curious about your breath to see where you feel the sensations of it. You can also breathe into the area of your body that feels tense or where you feel the anxiety.
One last technique you can use in this step is something called “Loving Kindness”. This can help us accept others and ourselves just as we are. It can help us let go of what has happened in the past, and learn from it so that we can move forward. Loving Kindness is a genuine well-wishing that we offer to ourselves and others.
There are three phases to this:
Using loving kindness phrases, seeing the image of the being to whom you are sending it to and recognizing a feeling of kindness that arises in your body.
Think of a situation that makes you anxious recently, and note the sensations.
Then bring to mind yourself or a friend and think about their loving qualities, or your loving qualities and kindness. Then use some phrases like, “may you be healthy, may you be happy, may you be free from harm”, and repeat these a few minutes.
It is my hope that these three steps empower you to move beyond your worry and fear habits, and step into the positive life-affirming habits that you can adopt instead. As you well know, a positive mindset is a powerful tool in your cancer journey. Small changes can lead to positive changes that will truly last!
Reference: Unwinding Anxiety by Dr. Judson Brewer.