To Change the Channel, Try the 'Five Things' Exercise

Last updated: December 2021

When you are fresh out of transplant, the fear of relapse can storm into your mind with a shout. “I’M RELAPSING!” you might think when feeling tired or out of sorts. The volume will lower as the years pass. When AML patients like me pass the magic five-year mark at which they are cured, it will get even dimmer. Yet I wonder if it ever totally goes away.

Because, at 12 years out, it is still there, albeit in a whisper. In the time of COVID-19, if you are under the weather, it can trade places with, “Do I have COVID?” Back and forth the squirr'ely mind whispers.

“Am I relapsing?”

“Do I have COVID?”

I don’t have a fever and I don’t have any of the other symptoms. So why did I worry?

Why did I worry?

I am an early riser, but the past two days I slept late. Yesterday I woke up exactly at 9:08 a.m. My favorite yoga class starts at 9:15. I have gone to some of these classes in person, at my local YMCA. I knew I would never make it, so I rushed down to my makeshift yoga studio – my living room – and did the yoga via Zoom. Today I slept until 10:30. I did stay up until past midnight, but still, that is a lot of sleep for me.

Fatigue, and needing more sleep, is a sign of leukemia. But it also could mean many other things, such as fighting off a “bug” or recovering from strenuous activity.

“Wait,” I said to myself. “Didn’t you play tennis the other night until it was so dark you could barely see the ball? Maybe THAT is why you were tired.” Also, the cooler nights are more conducive to sleep than those hot, toss-and-turn ones. I was so comfy under my covers, in the cool room, that every time I started to wake up, I drifted back to sleep.

Name five things

A mindfulness practice called “Name Five Things” popped into my head. It’s a way of focusing on what’s in front of you. It’s basically a plain old distraction, but mindfulness is the trendy word these days. Turns out I only had it partially right, though even doing part of it helps. I looked around and said to myself, “sleeping dog, pretty lamp, windowpanes, piano, and laptop.” By the time I said them all, I wasn’t ruminating anymore.

But wait, there is more. I looked up “name five things” and found “The Five Senses Exercise,” courtesy of The University of Vermont Medical Center. They of course didn’t come up with it, but they gave a good explanation, like so:

  • First, notice 5 things that you can see. Look around you and become aware of your environment. Try to pick out something that you don’t usually notice.
  • Second, notice 4 things you can feel. Bring attention to the things that you’re currently feeling, such as the texture of your clothing or the smooth surface of the table you’re resting your hands on.
  • Third, notice 3 things that you can hear. Listen for and notice things in the background that you don’t normally notice. It could be the birds chirping outside or an appliance humming in the next room.
  • Fourth, notice 2 things you can smell. Bring attention to scents that you usually filter out, either pleasant or unpleasant. Catch a whiff of the pine trees outside or food cooking in the kitchen.
  • Finally, notice 1 thing you can taste. Take a sip of a drink, chew gum, or notice the current taste in your mouth.

I don’t know... that seems like a lot of work. Naming five things got my mind off my fears. But adding any of these extra steps could take you even further out of yourself. One thing’s for sure, though, you won’t find me chewing gum. I’ve had so many problems with my teeth that I don’t want to risk having the gum pull anything out. THAT would surely take my mind off relapse fears, but then I’d have something real, and expensive, to worry about.

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