Saturday 1 September 2018

Weekly Discussion Summary ~ Calming Strategies for Anxiety

‘I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.’ Sylvia Plath

This week our discussion focused on strategies that our members have found useful to calm themselves, both in times of stress and generally in the day-to-day. Our members are women with both primary and secondary breast cancer, and previous discussions and our members’ posts highlight that anxiety may be a major problem following a breast cancer diagnosis.

Naz explained what happens to our brains when we take a moment, sit down and breathe. Our neural networks are highly active when we are busy doing things, occupied with thinking, remembering, attention, decision making and so on. When we stop and ‘do nothing’ our brain is just as active, but it’s our default mode network (DMN) that takes over in this state. Its job is to make sense of our experiences, to process what has happened and what it has learned. This is essential for our survival. If our DMN didn’t do this for us, reaching homeostasis, we would be continually overwhelmed. It makes sense that if we encourage our DMN to engage by being still, then we will cope better when we are busy. Meditative breathing induces calm into the body and mind via a two way exchange of relaxation signals. Practicing being calm means we’re better able to calm ourselves at will.

For many, seeking a calm state is part of a general desire to look after ourselves. Calming activities that many women shared include movement, activities such as walking, running, yoga, Pilates, cleaning and gardening. For those too unwell to move much, then simply getting outside into the fresh air helps. Activities such as reading, watching a film, listening to music – all can be both distracting and calming. Occupying the brain whilst resting the body is an essential part of healing. Knitting, crochet, doing jigsaws and colouring are absorbing soothing activities that many women find helpful. Visualisation is seen as a useful tool, particularly as a distraction during treatments such as scans. Many enjoy being in nature and imagining a beautiful place can be very relaxing.

Specific calming exercises recommended by our members include breathing exercises of various kinds (e.g. alternate nostril breathing, box breathing, the three minute breathing space) and some had tried sipping ice old water very slowly which works as a mindful activity. Grounding exercises include things like rubbing our thumbs together to feel the lines, and stopping what we are doing to observe and be mindful of our bodies and our surroundings. Some women find their faith helpful in keeping them calm.

Not everyone finds focusing on the breath helpful. One of the problems with classic meditation is that focusing on breathing leaves the sub-conscious brain free to roam. Following trauma such as breast cancer, this may interrupt our attempts at becoming calm by presenting intrusive troubling thoughts. For some women this makes them feel overwhelmingly sad and leads to overthinking and dark 'worst case scenario' thoughts. For this reason many women chose distracting relaxation over sitting in silence. Playing an instrument, singing and listening to music provide pleasure, and require concentration which focuses the mind and relaxes it too. Some women like calming neutral music (it may not be a good idea to play songs that are associated with memories) but others prefer something heavy and loud which they find dispels their worries much better.

Taking part in activities where we are out and about meeting others can help us to feel more confident, which can assist in alleviating anxiety. Several of us sing in a choir and many belong to groups to practise their hobbies and suggested classes or workshops in improv comedy and laughter yoga.

An exercise in gratitude was mentioned which many women find helpful: listing three things each day we are grateful for, or perhaps keeping a gratitude diary. A good cry is a great stress reliever too.

If you are a woman living in the UK with a breast cancer diagnosis and you would like to join our private group please send us a private message via

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