I was talking to a cancer agency social worker when she said, “So, what do you do to relax?” I ran through the list of the things I do to avoid stress. I spend time in nature, I listen to music, exercise, and watch Netflix. Boring stuff...
She reframed the question, “Think back to a time when you were most relaxed. Tell me about it.” My memory strained to find it. I was stumped.
I couldn't relax anymore
In 2012, I was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia. That was quite a few years ago. Since then I had gone through the motions of relaxing. I did all the things that were supposed to help me relax. It was like watching a movie with no picture. I couldn’t relate to the question at all.
Relaxed. What does that mean? It’s like asking what a violin sounds like to a person with a hearing impairment. They can feel the vibration but never experience the sound. That’s what relaxation was for me. I knew it existed, but I just didn’t experience it much anymore.
The social worker talked to me about what happens to the body when we are in a state of constant arousal. No, not THAT state of arousal (anyone on chemo can tell you there is very little of THAT during treatment). It's that hypervigilance where we are constantly looking for dangers. It’s that state of high-intensity emotion. That’s how I have felt since 2012.
I was experiencing panic attacks and generalized anxiety. It interrupted my work, my home life, and my relationships. Some people call it cancer PTSD. It had led to certain agoraphobia where even going out (especially during a pandemic) made my hands shake and my stomach turn. I fought it constantly. It was winning though. It was getting harder to function.
Willing to try anything
I agreed to take a class on mindfulness. I practiced breathing techniques. I learned about different kinds of anti-anxiety medication. I chose one. All these things were fine, but I still didn’t ever feel relaxed for any amount of time.
I met a retired doctor who had been an ER and ICU team lead. He had returned to duty as the pandemic hit. As an internist, he talked about the chemicals and hormones released by the body when we are truly relaxed. He described stress chemicals and how the body does not heal as well when they are present.
Perhaps it was his bedside manner, his honesty, or his Irish accent and the tilt of his head as he spoke. I was skeptical but uncomfortable enough to try just about anything. I began following his work and signed up for his free meditation zoom meetings. The meetings were simple guided breathing techniques with a dash of positive visualization and the permission to be vulnerable. Nothing outside my comfort zone. It reminded me of my grandmother and her prayers, really.
I was not prepared for the flood of emotions that followed as I learned to be still. Everything I had done up to this moment involved business and problem-solving. I had years of running away from emotions, pushing them down, denying they existed.
Finally, feeling relaxed
Allowing all of these pent-up emotions was a huge release. There were times when I actually fell asleep only to wake at the end of the meeting with my face covered in tears.
It took months of guided practice for me to feel comfortably at ease. Then it happened. A memory flooded my imagination. It was a feeling. It was that feeling I had as a toddler rocking in my grandmother's arms while she sang her favorite hymn. I felt safe. A relaxation flooded over me. We finished our group meditation with a thankfulness prayer and I have never felt such gratitude.
I have always honored a belief in the power of prayer. To me, prayer is a type of meditation. I was relearning something that had left me decades ago. I relearned trust and a little faith.
I’m still a leukemia patient on chemotherapy with everything that entails. I listen to my body and its symptoms. The difference is that now I have compassion for what I am going through. I try not to add emotions to the list of things I am fighting.
This isn’t as much of a quick fix as it is a process. I’m learning how to be resilient to the stress we all feel. Brain researcher Dr. Fred Travis explains it well. He said, ”What I think meditation is doing is erasing that line between challenge and stress. You can take on increasingly more and more challenges without it becoming stressful.” This is my goal. Just relax.
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