Reduce Your Stress
Some degree of stress is almost inevitable with a cancer diagnosis. But sustained stress, anxiety, and intense negative emotions can severely impact mental and physical health.
When we reduce stress, we are more able to think clearly, process information, make rational decisions and healthy choices, and support children through their experience.
Creating calm when we are already stressed is not easy. Identifying some strategies when we feel calm, and practicing them so they become familiar and natural, can help build up our coping skills to face the difficult times more effectively.
Below are 45 practical approaches to help calm both body and mind. Click on the numbered tips to read about each one, and for many, find more video and audio resources.
Select a handful that may work for you, then practice so you are confidently prepared to use them the next time you need to create more calm in your life. You are more likely to use them when they are most needed as self-care tools if you have already practiced them, prepared, and have any necessary supplies to hand.
As you do these activities, really focus on what you are doing, what you are experiencing, and how you feel emotionally. Paying close attention helps us stay grounded in the present moment and be enriched by it, rather than letting intrusive thoughts take over.
Attend to Your Thoughts
1. Notice Your Thoughts and Moods With Compassion
In times of high stress, we can wake up feeling anxious, with a sense of dread for the day ahead. We too often allow the cycle of negative thinking to kick in without realizing it is happening, or trying to stop it.
Daily life has become so busy and distracting that most of us don’t pay conscious attention to our emotions. We may acknowledge that we feel stressed, frustrated or have physical symptoms, but the majority of people aren’t deeply attuned to their feelings, or able to recognize how their moods impact their quality of life.
Even when we do have that valuable awareness of our shifting moods, we often don’t take the time to proactively improve our moods to create more positivity, energy, confidence, peace, and healing.
Start to break the cycle of negativity by observing our thoughts. When you detach yourself from your thoughts and merely notice them as they pass through your mind, you diminish the power they hold over your emotions.
For a week, take a few minutes each morning to tune into your mood and evaluate your feelings. Note down what you observe about your thoughts and feelings. For each negative observation, write what response you would give to a friend if they had brought this burden to you.
We are invariably so much more compassionate to our friends than we are to ourselves. But especially in tough times, administering “emotional first aid” to ourselves is vital.
Use the responses you have written for your friend to reframe your negative thoughts when you observe yourself thinking them. By treating yourself with more compassion, you can dramatically raise your quality of life, and that of your entire family.
2. Breathe Deep
When we’re anxious or angry, we tend to tense up, hold our breath or breathe fast and shallow. The automatic, often subconscious response ramps up stress even more. Thousands of years ago, when our ancestors faced wild animals in the bush, the stress response was helpful, but not in modern society.
Taking control of our breathing is the most effective way to reduce anger and anxiety fast. The effects of slow, deep breathing are almost instant, helping us feel calm, more clear-headed and in control.
Many different breathing techniques can help calm both body and mind. In the simplest form, take a deep breath in for three seconds, hold it for three seconds, then breathe out for three seconds. When you are comfortable with the rhythm, try to gradually lengthen your exhalation, paying attention to how your body feels as you go, stopping where you feel comfortably relaxed.
Practice this technique while calm, so you can identify what works best for you. You will also know how to control your breath and feel more comfortable and confident to use this approach when you feel tension rising within you.
Try it for yourself. In less than 4 minutes you can create an oasis of calm with this video from Oxford University’s Oxford Mindfulness Centre. This simple breathing exercise opens up space to just be still and let go of all burdens for a while.
3. Manage Difficult Emotions
When we’re already stressed, it’s inevitable we encounter small irritations throughout each day. We can’t find things we need, traffic is bad, plans go awry, people are rude or uncooperative, kids bicker… Those small stressors can compound into challenging emotions if we don’t properly manage them. Learning to cope with triggering emotions is vital for everyone’s sanity and peace.
We can’t always change the triggers – events unfold beyond our control, and other people make their own choices. But we can work from within to manage our own emotions and feel less frustrated. Follow these five steps for more peace:
- Identify: What triggers you, and how do you respond? What do you think and say to yourself? How does it make you feel, physically and emotionally? Name those sensations and feelings, for example “I am angry”, “my hands feel clammy”. Powerful emotions control us when we don’t give them close attention. Actively focusing on the emotion, and how it makes you think and feel, reduces its power.
- Step Back: Emotions are not who we are. Think of them as waves of experience we can choose to surf. If you notice an emotion or thought process pulling you down, disrupt it by saying something like “this is making me unhappy. I am not doing this anymore. I deserve to treat myself more kindly”.
- Release: How can you view the situation more positively and relieve your tension in this moment? For example, using gratitude, or a deep breathing exercise.
- Replace: Focus on replacing the negative emotion with positive ones. Perhaps listen to a happy playlist, or a funny recording of your children. Laughter, smiles and singing aloud create some of the best emotional healing. Do you have to continue with the task at hand, or can you take a brief mental reset break, and return with a clearer, calmer mind?
- Observe: What are you thinking and saying to yourself now? How do you feel, physically and emotionally? Name those sensations and feelings, for example “I am calm”, “my muscles feel relaxed”. Paying close attention will reinforce the value of this approach, and help you adjust your action responses as you go along, to discover what works best for you.
You will need to practice over and over again before managing your emotions in this way becomes natural, but doing so will be worthwhile.
4. Challenge Your Thoughts
The human “monkey mind” is filled with thoughts constantly chattering away, throwing themselves incoherently around, crashing into and chasing other thoughts without actively considering their relevance or value to the individual’s present life.
The constant stream of assessment and judgement, reminders and plans, hurtful memories, fears (real and imagined), and catastrophizing the future can be utterly exhausting. When we are anxious or angry, we become fixated on the cause, and thoughts are particularly irrational, propelling the mind into a vortex of “what if” scenarios that can never be resolved.
Once pulled into that spiral, it is very difficult to reach through chaotic thoughts to effectively connect with what is happening Right Now. We become more stressed, restless, less able to concentrate and make good decisions, and we’re burdened by negative emotions. Our relationships, work and sleep suffers.
Learning to quiet the chattering mind has so many benefits. It allows us to focus calmly and clearly on current activities in the present moment. It reduces tension and anxiety, improves concentration, clarity of thought and reasoned decision making. It supports positive emotions, loving relationships, productive work and restorative sleep.
Questioning statements help to break the stream of negative mind-chatter by putting individual thoughts through a reality check. They encourage us to pause and invite rational thinking to return, so we can shift our perspective and make better decisions.
When you experience a negative thought, stop and ask yourself questions like:
- Is this a rational thought?
- Is this likely to happen?
- What is the worst that can happen?
- Can I handle that?
- Is that worst case scenario happening right now?
- Can I do anything to prevent it in this moment?
- Considering all the above, is my thought helpful? Does it propel me into positive action, or does it only deplete my energy and increase my stress?
- How can I replace this thought with something more constructive?
Use your responses to reframe your thoughts and immediate actions.
For example, if your thought is something like:
“My family might get sick and my child’s treatment might be delayed with terrible consequences.”
Consider replacing it with something like:
“We are taking all precautions possible to prevent infection, and the doctors will advise us of what to do if someone does get sick, so we won’t face anything or make decisions alone. We have people supporting us. Right now we are all well, and we will make the best of another good day together. I will not let uncertainty steal that gift from us. So instead, right now I will…”
Quieting the mind takes active attention and daily practice. But it’s very possible to learn to do so that it becomes second nature.
5. Use Positive Affirmations
Affirmations are positive statements you repeat to yourself, describing who and how you want to be. Affirmations are phrased in the present tense, as though the outcome is currently occurring. Examples of affirmations:
- “I am calm and confident”
- “I don’t know what will happen, but I can control the peace I have today.”
Establishing a positive affirmation routine first thing in the morning can impact the outcome of your entire day. Using affirmations at pressure points throughout the day, and in the evening can help relieve tension, maintain a positive focus, and set up for more restful sleep and a good start to the following day.
Affirmations are valuable for adults and children alike. Writing affirmations together with your children and saying them together daily can create a great opportunity for communication and bonding.
When practiced deliberately and repeatedly, positive affirmations can literally rewire the brain, replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. Daily practice reinforces chemical pathways, strengthening the connection between neurons. Over time, they are more likely to transmit the positive messages naturally, without your conscious direction.
Here is a short introduction to using positive daily affirmations.
6. Visualize Yourself Calm
How does it feel to be calm, free from worry and the attention-seeking thoughts of a cluttered mind? How do you breathe in those moments of peace? How does your body rest? Next time you’re aware of feeling particularly at peace, pay particular attention to your breathing and position.
- How deep are your breaths – their pace, tempo, duration, in/out ratio etc.?
- How are you positioned? Are you sitting, reclined, standing? Does your breathing and sense of peace remain or alter when you change position?
Now try to imagine yourself calm. Close your eyes and take a few deep, cleansing breaths. Imagine your body and mind feeling relaxed as you navigate through a stressful situation. Recall how you naturally breathe when you’re most relaxed. Pay attention to recreating that breathing pattern, or simply breathe slow and deep.
When you take time to create a clear mental image of what it looks and feels like to be calm in a difficult situation, you can refer back to that image when your reality begins to tense.
This can be very difficult to do when we are caught up in the stress of a situation. Daily practicing specific breathing techniques, or using a guided meditation to reduce stress and create calm, can be very beneficial.
Try this 5 minute guided meditation to reduce anxiety and increase calm. A wide variety of longer meditations are available online, but in the moments we most need the calming space, 5 minutes may be all we have – and all that is needed to restore calm.
7. Write “Morning Pages”
In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron encourages readers to begin every day with “Morning Pages”, which she describes as:
“Three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning. There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages – they are not high art. They are not even ‘writing.’ They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind – and they are for your eyes only. Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the day at hand.”
For 5-15 minutes at the start of the day, you’re fully focused on liberating your mind. The journal becomes your pensive, your pen or keyboard and act of writing is the magic that draws the silver stands of mental clutter from your mind.
If 10 minutes seems daunting, try writing for just 3 minutes. You also don’t have to write at all. Try the Notes App on your phone and speak your thoughts and feelings. On the iPhone, the dictate button is located just to the left of the Space button on any on-screen keyboard.
Set your day off to a calmer, lighter start with this easy journaling exercise.
8. Practice Mindful Gratitude
Thoughts powerfully influence our mood. A single thought can quickly leach colour away, and the gathering grey mood separates us from potential to experience joy.
Yet we can fundamentally shift our outlook by simply appreciating what we have in that moment. Gratitude disciplines us to stop wishing for something else, to value the blessings we have right now, and the experiences we have already received. Gratitude helps us to be more content.
This seems ridiculously simple. But research shows that genuine gratitude has transformational impact on our lives. Daily practice can reduce symptoms of or risk for depression, improve sleep, physical health, well-being, outlook and relationships, boost concentration and productivity.
In times of busyness and intense stress, daily gratitude can greatly improve quality of life. Yet we tend to give the least mind to gratitude at these times. We’re so caught up in our thoughts that we fail to recognise the gifts blessing us right now.
When we focus on gratitude, we train our minds to look for the positive rather than focusing on the challenges, frustrations, and slights we encounter. Mindful gratitude practice means becoming immersed in the emotion so that we feel deeply and profoundly blessed.
Try this super simple gratitude practice for a week every evening for a week before you go to bed, and observe how you feel as a result.
Write down three things that went well during the day, their genesis, and a brief, causal explanation of how they impacted your day. When a day is especially hard and you can’t identify anything that went well, take a few minutes to look back through your reflections, you’ll probably find some inroads to gratitude for the day, and reflecting on previous gratitude will draw your mind away from a trap of negative thinking into a more positive mind-set, ready for the next morning.
9. Consume Uplifting Content
What do you read, listen to or watch in the first minutes and hours of your day, and before you go to bed? News, email, social media? How does it make you feel? If it doesn’t add positively to your day, and especially if it depletes your energy or disrupts your sleep, stop doing it! Replace what you read, watch or listen to with something uplifting.
In times of crisis, we need to check current news to ensure we have all relevant information to stay safe and ensure we are following any community guidelines. However, you can carefully select the sources you visit to ensure you are reading clear fact rather than opinion and potential misinformation that may fuel your anxiety.
Of course we all need to check email at some point in the day – for work, for important communications like those relating to medical care. But if you don’t have to check in first thing in the morning because of an emergent situation, don’t.
The first hour when you wake up becomes the psychological anchor for your day, and you have control over what you choose to put in front of yourself during that time to influence how you feel for the rest of the day. The same is true of the last hour of the day as you wind down for the night. Reading the news just before bed is more likely to fill your mind with anxiety-inducing thoughts that disrupt restorative sleep.
Changing what you listen to, watch, or read is an act of self-care. Even if you have spent your entire life doing something different, now is the time to create a new routine that supports your positive mental health.
These actions will not magic away the challenges of the day, but they build up a store of emotional energy that equips us to respond with more positivity. Every day brings new challenges, so it’s important we top up that internal store at the start and end of every day.
Here is a great little talk on why taking a break from news consumption is a sensible decision for personal wellbeing.
10. Switch Off From Social Media
These days, when we feel overwhelmed, our first instinct is often to turn to our devices for comfort. But excessive connectivity also creates unnecessary stress. Social content stealthily shifts our focus away from what we identify as important and within our capacity, to question whether we should have or do something more in order to be something more.
Scrolling newsfeeds create a false sense of urgency, and a constant undercurrent of anxiety that we are not good enough or that we are missing something important. Sleep is disrupted when we seek connection late at night, and thoughts may become consumed with alarming reports, false information, and negative comments we may read. The cumulative effect can be very harmful to our psychological and physical wellbeing.
Actively thinking about how social media makes you feel can help you take steps to create a more enjoyable experience that protects your mental health online.
If you notice that your enjoyment of social media is waning, or that using it is contributing to negative thoughts and emotions, make an active choice to ignore the content. If necessary, stop checking your newsfeed, and instead directly visit the feeds of friends, groups and pages you wish to interact with. Or take a complete social media break to create more substantial breathing space.
For some people, a digital detox might mean unfollowing certain brands or “friends”. For others it may mean mindfully stepping away from all digital devices for short periods several times each day or for a more extended period to feel more focused and centred when plugging back in.
Turning off screens at least 60 minutes before bed is valuable advice for everyone to aid good sleep. The blue light on device screens interrupts production of sleep-inducing hormones, stimulating the brain and causing us to feel more awake. If you wake up during the night, avoid reaching for the phone or tablet. Instead, try some relaxing music or a few pages of a print or audio book.
This talk offers some thoughtful, practical tips for living more mindfully with social media, without turning it off completely.
Connect With Your Body
11. Drop your shoulders
When we are stressed, our entire body tenses up. Dropping your shoulders can help to rapidly release tension throughout the body. Sit up straight, breathe in deep, then exhale slowly and focus on drawing your shoulder blades together and downwards. Continue slow, deep breaths to release the stress you were holding, and refocus.
12. Massage Your Scalp
Massaging your scalp is a great way to ground yourself, and relieve mental stress and physical tension. Evening massage supports deep, restorative sleep. Relax your fingers, and use your fingertips, not your nails, to massage your scalp in a circular motion. Gently tug the roots using your thumb and forefinger as you move through each section of hair. End the massage by lightly pressing and circling your fingers and palms against the side and over the top of your head, down to the nape of your neck.
13. Wash and Massage Your Face
Take a minute to yourself in the bathroom to breathe and splash some cold water on your face, or a little longer to give your face a good wash and a calming massage in the process. Cool water on flushed, tense skin is instantly refreshing and soothing. Gently massaging in a lightly scented face wash, conditioner or moisturising cream can be a much needed balm.
14. Relax Your Neck Muscles
Do you ever wake up in the morning with a tense, sore neck, feeling like you’ve slept in the wrong position? Do you sit for long periods of time at a computer or in the hospital with your child on clinic days?
Especially during times of stress and worry, our neck carries so much tension, which can have a profound effect on our wellbeing. But just a few minutes of simple, gentle neck stretches each day can relieve that tension. Very easy to do anywhere.
Note: the presenting physical therapist, Michelle Kenway, gives great audio instruction of all the exercises. The first 5 seconds or so are text-only frames asking viewers to note the disclaimer at the end of the video – the disclaimer reminds viewers the video is not a substitute for medical advice.
15. Apply Acupressure
Acupressure can be an effective way to manage anxiety and anger, and you can apply it to yourself for instant relief. Acupressure involves putting pressure with your fingers or your hand at certain points of the body. The pressure releases the tension and relaxes your body. It should never be done in an area with an open cut, healing wound, rash, or swelling, or an IV line.
Try one of the following acupressure points. Apply gentle pressure for 1-2 minutes with your index finger or thumb, using a slow, circular motion.
- Locate the point between your eyebrows, just above the bridge of your nose..
- Locate the subtle groove next to the mastoid (ear) bone, towards the centre of your neck. Follow the groove down to locate the point in the divot where the neck muscles attach to the skull.
- Locate the point where the inside of your wrist forms a crease with your hand.
- Hold your hand palm down. Locate the point in the soft V shaped webbing formed between the index finger and thumb.
16. Massage Your Hands
Anxiety can cause us to mistreat our hands without a second thought. Wringing them in frustration, overworking at our keyboards or smart devices, or excessively cleaning and washing in efforts to stave off worry.
Show your hands a little kindness with a five minute massage. Focusing on the steps in the process, the sensations and scents of the experience can help to dramatically calm both body and mind.
Select your favourite moisturising hand cream and rub a generous portion into your palms. Use moderate pressure, and repeat each of the following strokes at least three times:
- Use your palm to stroke from wrist to fingertips on both sides of your hand.
- Massage each finger and thumb between your thumb and forefinger. Use a circular motion over the knuckles, before gliding thumb and forefinger along the entire digit from base to tip, giving it a gentle stretch in the process.
- Using your fingertips, massage the base of your hand at your wrist in a circular motion. Slowly move upwards over your palm, and back along your forearm.
- Form a loose first and gently raise it towards your elbow as you continue to massage your wrist.
- Cradle your hand palm down in your active hand, and massage the sides of the wrist and hand.
- Use your fingertips to massage the muscles between the finger bones on the top side of your hand.
- Use your thumb to massage the area between your thumb and forefinger. Do not do this last step if you are pregnant as this is a pressure point not recommended in pregnancy.
Eckhart Tolle discusses how to break the habit of excessive worry and mind chatter by focusing our thoughts on the hands, and the deep sensation of their existence as part of our body.
17. Use a Stress Ball
Squeezing a stress ball can be a useful tool to help connect with your breath and your body while releasing pent up emotion. Try one of the following techniques. To get the most out of your stress ball, repeat the action 5-10 times with one hand, rest for one minute, then repeat 5-10 times with the other hand.
- Place the ball between your palms, holding your forearms in an upright prayer-like position. Take a deep breath in and press and hold your breath and the ball for 3-5 seconds, then exhale slowly and release your grip.
- Form a first around the ball and squeeze it as hard as you can as your breathe in. Hold your breath and the squeeze for 3-5 seconds, then exhale slowly and release your grip.
- Place the ball between the tip of your thumb and index finger. Breathe in. Press and hold for 3-5 seconds, then relax. Repeat with each finger.
18. Relax Your Body With A Mindful Body Scan
When we are anxious or angry, every muscle in our body can feel like a tightly wound spring. Practicing progressive muscle relaxation can help to relax those stressed muscles and calm the mind.
A body scan is a very relaxing meditative practice in which you focus on each part of your body in turn, from the toes to the head, or the other way around. The aim is to bring full attention to each specific point on your body for a few moments, and observe what and how you feel.
In stressful situations, you can gently draw your mind away from difficult thoughts with a simple body scan, breaking a negative thought spiral and restoring calm.
Below are two guided body scans of 15 and 30 minutes. Closing your eyes during the scan is not necessary, but it does aid relaxation. The scan is not intended as a sleep-aid, but it can be very helpful wind-down at the end of the day.
15 min scan, led by Mark Williams, director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre at the University of Oxford.
30 min scan, led by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic and Center for Mindfulness in Medicine at U. Mass.
19. Roll A Tennis Ball Under Your Feet
Placing a tennis (lacrosse or golf) ball on the ground under your food, and slowly rolling it with moderate pressure can help loosen muscles and relieve tension throughout the entire body. This gentle foot massage is a great way to give your feet some TLC while also cleansing body and mind.
20. Stay Hydrated
Drinking water is something we all need to do to stay physically and mentally well. But most adults and children are chronically under-hydrated. We don’t drink enough, and what we do drink, we don’t consume steadily enough throughout the day to be of real value.
When we are dehydrated, we can feel drained and tired, have headaches, muscle aches, mood swings, and find it more difficult to manage our thoughts and emotions. That’s an especially toxic combination of impacts in times of crisis like Rb!
Put a glass of water beside your bed, so you can drink it first thing in the morning, before you get up. Take a few quiet moments to drink it slowly, so your brain has time to make the connection that you are drinking and reap the full benefit. Pay attention to it, and set the intention to drink regularly throughout the day. You will be more likely to rehydrate yourself after being asleep, and you will be more aware of the need to drink water in the busy hours ahead.
Aim for at least 2 litres (8 glasses) of water per day. Remember that caffeinated drinks (coffee, tea, sports drinks, sodas etc.) dehydrate the system. Water, whether plain or flavoured, is best. You also get a lot of water from fruit and veg.
Here are some tips to help you drink more throughout the day.
21. Eat Well
Just as when we are dehydrated, when we are hungry, we become less able to think clearly and make logical decisions that protect our mental health. During times of high stress, when appetite may change or demands may limit the time available for meals, it is especially important to eat well.
If you find yourself craving snacks, check in with your body to identify whether you need a drink. Dehydration can feel like hunger pangs, and a glass of water can settle the discomfort of endless cravings.
Prepare some healthy meals and snacks in advance, or ask relatives and friends to help with this to ensure you and your family eat well. Try to keep a balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, pulses and wholegrains. Good nutrition will support everyone’s mental and physical health.
Change Your Focus
22. Take a Music Break
Listening to music is a powerful mindfulness habit with many positive mental and physical health benefits. Taking a break to actively listen to music for a few minutes during your day can help you return to your activities in a more focused, peaceful, and productive frame of mind.
Losing yourself in the words and steps of your favourite songs can help ease out stress and tension. Dancing and singing also boosts oxygen intake and blood circulation, refreshing and energizing both body and mind.
Listening to music – especially classical music – while working can also stimulate the brain to improve concentration, comprehension, learning, memory, creativity, and problem solving.
The following technique is taken (paraphrased) from the book “Night School” by Richard Wiseman.
Neuro-napping to Boost Brain Power
Take a musical catnap to help boost alertness, creativity and productivity by around 60%.
- Listen to a piece of quiet, repetitive music for 20 minutes in the background while studying, or working on creative problem solving.
- Take a 10 minute break without the music.
- Turn on the same music again from the start. Lie down, close your eyes and nap for 30 minutes. Set your alarm to avoid oversleeping. The music will encourage your brain to continue working away on the exercise/task/problem solving while you sleep. When you wake, you will notice a significant improvement in both body and mind.
Here is a little more on how music can help influence development and healing.
23. Laugh Out Loud
Life in general often feels very serious. Add retinoblastoma into the mix and it can be almost impossible to find the lighter side to life on many days. But taking time for a dose of laughter is a mindfulness habit well worth the effort every day.
Mindfulness doesn’t always require focused attention and a disciplined mind. The best kind of present moment awareness happens spontaneously – with unstoppable giggles or a raucous belly laugh. Entirely possible alone, best shared with others.
By giving yourself permission and space to laugh, you create a mental refresher, taking yourself to a brighter place from where you can enjoy the day with a more relaxed, positive, and joyful perspective.
Laughter is especially valuable for individuals receiving chemotherapy. Growing anecdotal and research evidence suggests that laughter can help boost the immune system and overcome or prevent neutropenia. Laughter can literally help us heal.
Try this ridiculously silly laughter inducing game…how many pens can you balance on your face in one minute? Rapidly recharge your batteries and let go of all troublesome thoughts to focus on the challenge, it’s virtually guaranteed to generate a giggle at least.
This talk on the science of laughter is a laughter generator in itself!
24. Do Some Handwork
Handwork is any kind of work or hobby that involves using your hands with some degree of concentration and creativity. Examples include knitting, crochet, embroidery, quilting, weaving, beading, bookbinding, origami, painting, sculpting, carving, calligraphy, even colouring.
Through regular handwork practice, you develop a strong connection between the sensory experience, mental focus, and creative act. Handwork best lends itself to mindfulness and mental wellbeing when the focus required is not complex or overly challenging. These activities can be deeply engaging, relaxing and fulfilling.
Handcrafting has many therapeutic benefits. As a mindfulness practice, they relieve tension, anxiety and stress. So they may be perfect activities for an evening routine, a therapeutic way to unwind from a tough day.
The very act of crafting is mindful practice – you need to slow down and think about what you are working on, forcing other things out of your mind. A mini-meditation in which the mind can roam free while you focus on the details of the art project, its materials, colours, textures, spaces, and cohesion.
This CNN news story focuses on the health benefits of adult colouring – one of the easiest forms of handcrafting for individuals with sight to engage in. The principles presented in this clip apply to most forms of handcrafting.
25. Do A Puzzle or Word Game
Crosswords, word searches, Sudoku, solitaire, scrabble, Rubik’s cube, large picture puzzles and similar games requiring concentration can firmly redirect attention away from troubling thoughts. To refocus in an immediate moment of anxiety, try a brain-teaser such as naming all US states and their capital cities in alphabetical order, then repeating the list backwards. Or simply speak the alphabet in reverse. The necessary intense focus helps break the cycle of negative emotion and energy, allowing both body and mind vital space to calm down.
26. Read or Write
Reading can be a wonderful antidote for troubling thoughts and challenges beyond our control. We can escape into pages of adventure, romance, mystery and beautiful literature, and lose ourselves for a time in the twists and turns of other people’s lives.
The key is to choose reading material captures your interest and is light enough to give your mind space to relax as you read or listen. Avoid books, journals, magazines and newspapers etc. with content that is likely to trigger negative thoughts. Select feel-good stories, or articles about activities you enjoy such as travel, gardening, or crafting.
Consider writing your own creative path to a calmer place. Creative writing may seem like the last thing you’d want to do, but the creative process can dramatically slow down your thoughts and allow both body and mind space to release tension. In the process, you can create something wonderful, that may or may not reflect your own thoughts and feelings.
Just as with art therapy, creative writing is an expressive art that harnesses our thoughts, creativity and imagination to produce poetry, song lyrics, short stories, novels, narrative reporting, and many other forms of creative writing.
You don’t have to be a brilliant writer to benefit from creative writing. Everyone is uniquely creative, with potential to find joy in writing for stress relief.
So grab your preferred writing tools, find a quiet space and time to write, keep an open mind, turn on calming music, take some deep focusing breaths, and begin!
If you are struggling for ideas, try one of these 15 writing prompts:
- Famous novel endings. Write a story that ends with one of the following:
- “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
- “Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.” To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
- “And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.” Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
- “Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.” My Antonia, Willa Cather
- “My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?” David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas.
- Free Writing. Write freely about:
- The last incident that made you cry with laughter
- The oddest coincidence you ever came across
- The best qualities of someone you dislike
- Two Word Create. Write a scene that involves at least two of the following:
- church pew
- magnifying glass
- glass of wine
- Write a conversation in direct speech between
- two strangers in a cemetery visiting the same grave
- a child and her mother on the way home from school after both have had a bad day
- two people talking on the telephone, one of whom is trying to duck an invitation
- No I. Write a passage of no more than 200 words without using the letter I.
- Alphabet Story: Write a 26 sentence story, in which each sentence begins with the next letter of the alphabet.
- Five Senses First: Using all five senses, describe a first:
- house / flat
- big success
- day at school
- roller coaster
- encounter with your best friend
- Everything but the Eyes: Describe a place of importance using sensory details of taste, smell, hearing or touch. Anything except the visual.
- Random Chance: Select a book and open it to page 96. Use the first line of the second paragraph as the first line of a short story.
- Objects: Take any object from any room in your home and tell the story of the person who invented/made/sold that object.
- Perspective of Place: Describe a significant place, allowing the details to reveal why the place matters. Describe it from the perspective of:
- sitting in a tree
- a bird’s eye view
- the height of a dog
- the height of a mouse
- Monosyllabic: Using 1 syllable words only, write a story beginning:
- “The last time I saw her, she…”
- “From the back of the bus…”
- “When the last full moon…”
- “One thing I know for sure…”
- Animal’s Perspective: Describe one of the following:
- a picnic from an ant’s perspective
- a zoo from an elephant’s perspective
- an ocean sunset from a dolphin’s perspective
- an African rain storm from a zebra’s perspective
- the summer thaw from a polar bear’s perspective
- 3 Wishes: A genie has just granted you three wishes. Write a detailed description of your three wishes. Include reasons for wanting that wish.
- Story of Colour: Write a story in which the first word of every paragraph is a specific colour. Use the “colour word” only once in each paragraph, but suggest the colour in as many ways as possible.
Clutter can cause us to feel stressed, tired, overwhelmed, even depressed. While conversely, a clutter-free space induces feelings of calm, energy, lightness and freedom. So if your home or workspace feels a little too crowded, take some time to calm it down with a decluttering tidy up.
Take five minutes to refresh the space and create an instant new perspective. That may be as simple as making the bed, straightening cushions on the sofa, or asking the kids to help put their toys away. Consider setting aside 15 minutes each day to organise a space in more detail, such as a kitchen counter top, a drawer, or shelf. By tackling small spaces one at a time, you can declutter without overwhelming yourself, and feel happier and more accomplished in the process. Gradually, you can create more space and order as you want to see it.
Make Space For Yourself
28. Have a Cuppa
Both green and black tea contains L-Theanine, an amino acid well known to reduce the body’s stress response and calm the mind. It may also have a number of other health benefits, such as boosting the immune system and lowering blood pressure. The act of pausing for a few minutes to sip the hot, soothing drink can also create a mental oasis to rebalance.
As with coffee, drink tea in moderation to avoid the unpleasant effects of excessive caffeine intake, which can include nausea, upset stomach and irritability. If you are pregnant, breastfeeding or taking chemotherapy, check with your doctor to clarify what is safe for you.
29. Use Aromatherapy
Aromatherapy is a form of alternative or complementary medicine that uses the essential oils from plants to affect both your physical and mental well-being.
Our sense of smell is powerful. Scent can evoke strong memories, conjure vivid imagination, and stir intense emotion. When we smell good things, we feel better.
Bad odours draw up negative reactions, often bringing painful reminders of the past.
Finding an aromatherapy scent you enjoy will increase your overall mood, reduce stress, calm you down, and create a relaxing atmosphere. Aromatherapy can be used throughout the day, but can especially aid relaxation in the evening, right before going to bed.
You may find the following suggestions particularly helpful…
- Lavender: Relieves stress and tension, aids peaceful sleep.
- Rosemary: Stimulates, energizes, reduces muscle tension, aids memory.
- Jasmine: Relieves tension and anxiety and revives the mind. Aids confidence.
- Orange: Energizes and invigorates.
- Peppermint: Boosts energy and concentration.
- Eucalyptus: Boosts energy and sharpens the mind for complex tasks.
- Grapefruit: Boosts energy, balances the mind, and reduces stress.
- Lemon: Raises energy, clarity and calm.
- Lime: Boosts mood and energy.
- Basil: Aids concentration and memory.
- Cinnamon: Aids memory and boosts cognitive function.
- Ginger: Boosts energy.
- Pine: Boost energy and focus.
- Cedarwood: Boosts energy and focus.
- Sage: Stimulates and aids concentration.
30. Get Some Fresh Air
The ambient temperature and flow of air around us has a significant impact on our wellbeing. Feeling emotionally charged and tense in a hot, stuffy or crowded environment could trigger a panic attack or overflow of anger you may later regret.
Remove yourself from that situation as soon as possible once you recognize the risk. Step outside into the fresh air for a few minutes of breathing space. The change of space and air flow will help to release tension in your body, and calm your mind.
31. Connect With Nature
Numerous studies have shown that spending time in nature can boost our immune system, reduce levels of cortisol (the stress-hormone), relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety, improve concentration, creativity, and memory.
Try a nature meditation, a very simple way to engage all your senses in the environment around you. This is possible whether you are walking down the street, hiking a country trail, walking the dog in your neighbourhood park, or simply sitting at an open window. Pay attention to your breath, to what you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel around you. Can you identify five items for each sense? Focusing on what your senses encounter releases your mind from ongoing internal chatter, and gives more awareness to the beauty of life around and within you.
If you can’t go outside at all, or you cannot find any natural environments to connect with in your neighbourhood, try watching a nature documentary or webcam, or listening to a recording of nature sounds. Here are two examples.
32. Have A Hot Soak In The Tub
A relaxing soak in a scented bath at any time of day can be the ultimate healing balm. Warm bubbles and candles can be a wonderful way to relax as the evening draws in, and prepare for restful sleep.
Unwinding in comfortably hot water purifies body and mind. The skin responds to the sensation of warm water by releasing endorphins, the feel-good hormone, just as it does when bathed in warm sunlight. The heat also helps to loosen tight muscles and relieve pain. As a result, gentle stretches are often easier in the bath. Carefully selecting bath products with attention to their ingredients such as essential oils and salts can also significantly influence physical and mental wellness.
33. Increase Your Heart Rate
Increasing heart rate and blood circulation has many physical and mental health benefits. Even a brief exercise session can help reduce stress as it releases endorphins (feel-good hormones), and increases the concentration of norepinephrine, a chemical that modulates the stress response.
So go for a run, cycle ride or swim, create a home routine with burpees, jumping jacks, squats, lunges, and push-ups. Jump rope or dance the hula with a weighted hoop, Or simply jog on the spot or jive to your favourite music.
34. Stretch Out With A Brief Yoga Routine
Yoga originated in India about 5,000 years ago, and has evolved around the world into many styles of practice with different philosophies and exercises. Each can be applied in a range of situations for both physical and mental health benefits.
Yoga is now commonplace in health clubs, hospitals and other health care facilities, community centres, schools and retirement homes.
Yoga poses (asanas) involve a series of movements, holds, and controlled breathing. They help to calm and purify the body and mind while also developing physical strength and stamina.
Medical research shows that regular yoga practice helps ease high blood pressure, pain, depression, stress and symptoms in a wide range` of other medical conditions.
Some styles of yoga are more vigorous than others. Some place more emphasis on posture, and others on the breath. Many yoga teachers develop their individual practice by studying and combining elements from multiple styles. No style has proven to be more effective or beneficial to stress relief than another. The important thing is to choose a teacher, approach and class that suits you.
If your child is still in/recently-past treatment, consider asking if the hospital, hospitality housing like Ronald McDonald House or another support service offers yoga classes for parents. If you are a survivor living near a cancer centre, you could ask if the hospital has a program you can join. For example, survivors living in the UK can benefit from yoga, tai chi or qigong classes run by Maggie’s Centres acro
ss the country (you do not need to be an active patient at the hospital to benefit from this service).
There are many yoga practice possibilities online, for complete beginners and more experienced yogis. From full length classes to routines as short as five minutes.
A quick Youtube search will bring up a vast array of routines with which to start or end the day. You can also find routines for office breaks when you have limited space and you are dressed for work, or to address a wide range of physical and mental health situations.
This is a good routine for complete beginners. The presenter takes her time to explain each breath, movement and pose.
Build Your Support Network
35. Ask for What You Need
Reach out to those around you. Human connection is the best way through difficult times. People want to help but often aren’t aware their help is needed, or they don’t know how to offer or give help effectively. So ask for what you need – specific support, a friend by your side at a hospital visit or an event you’d like to attend, a telephone call or a chat over a slice of cake and a cup of tea, a hug, time to listen…
Whatever you need, your first step is to ask. Don’t worry that people will be too busy. They may be, but let them decide. Just explain honestly what you are feeling, what you need, and how it will help. That first small ask is always the hardest step.
36. Cuddle With Your Furry Babies
Pet therapy is enormously soothing to both body and mind. The rhythmic motion of stroking a furry animal helps to regulate breathing and calm racing thoughts. Active play helps draw our mind away from troubling thoughts into the action of the present moment. The physical activity and shift in perspective helps to release tension.
Animals are very attuned to the emotions of their human companions, and can present themselves at opportune moments for a little respite. Take advantage of those moments, rather than shooing your pet away in frustration.
37. Talk With Friends
Sharing feelings and talking over troubles with a trusted friend can offer new perspective, ease worries and give reassurance that people care and we are not alone. Whether it be a conversation in person, a live-chat over Facetime or Skype, real-time text messaging or back-and-forth messages over several days, take time to find the friends you need to share your burdens and help lift you up. And be ready to do the same for them.
38. Show Appreciation
In our busy, distracted lives, it is easy to neglect showing appreciation for the people we interact with each day. We are so consumed with our own thoughts, tasks, and obligations that we become unconscious of the many ways others support and help us. Or we simply fail to translate our gratitude into acknowledgement.
Taking time to express appreciation shows you are fully present with the other person, tuned into their essential worthiness and humanity. When you simply express appreciation, you draw people into your light, and their positive experience of service is magnified. Creating unique ways to show appreciation can in itself be highly mindful, grounding and uplifting for you.
Reduce Stress While Tasking
39. Practice the Pomodoro Technique
Focusing on tasks can be difficult when mind and body are weighed down with the effects of stress and anxiety. Or simply because the sky stretches beautifully blue outside through long summer days. The Pomodoro Technique may help avoid an endless spiral of poor focus > incomplete tasks > raised stress and anxiety > poor focus….
The Pomodoro Technique breaks down work periods into 25-minute sessions (Pomodoros) with a five minute reward break between each session. The technique aims to increase productivity. You improve mental agility and efficiency by focusing intensely on a task for only a short time, then briefly recharge your batteries.
If you have difficulty focusing, this technique can help you stay present in your work without tiring quickly or giving in to distractions. The intense focus allows you to immerse yourself in work with enough engagement to enter the flow state. The breaks are a great incentive to stay on-task, then really enjoy that reward.
The Pomodoro Technique works in five basic steps:
- Identify the task to be done.
- Set a timer to twenty-five minutes, and turn off all distractions. Preferably set your phone to Airplane mode.
- Work on the task until the timer rings. Record the Pomodoro as a completed task.
- Take a 5 minute break (set the timer if necessary).
- Work through four Pomodoros, then take a longer break of 15–30 minutes (set the timer if necessary).
Here are more tips on how to use the Pomodoro Technique effectively.
40. Stand, Stretch, and Get Moving
Do you sit at a desk all day, or spend long hours sitting beside your child at the hospital? Sitting all day can cause us to tune out from the needs of our own body. Regularly sitting for long periods is linked with obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Spending time every week at the gym or exercising doesn’t completely offset the negative impact of extended sitting. Both body and mind can benefit from simply standing up, stretching muscles, and moving around for a few minutes.
This is another reason why the Pomodoro Technique is valuable for work focus – it encourages regular short healthy work breaks, especially when we are stressed.
The following relaxation technique is taken from the book “Relax in a Minute” by Tony Wrighton. This is great for use at the office or hospital because it takes less than a minute, can be done discretely even when other people are around, and it helps stretch out the thumbs/fingers that are curled up and tensed by typing.
The Float relaxation technique
- Breathe in for 4 counts, then breathe out for 4 counts.
- Tap the thumb to each finger as you count: In 2 – 3 – 4 / Out – 2 – 3 – 4
- Combine breathing, counting and tapping in rhythm with a slow walking pace.
You could also replace the 1-2-3-4 count with a phrase like “calm begins with me”.
Relax in a Minute is available on Amazon and Audible. The following is an extract read on the Optimal Living Daily Podcast in 2017, including the above technique.
41. Practice Mindful Driving
Driving to work when you are tired and your mind is full…Navigating the school-run traffic with chatty passengers…Another commute to a much anticipated EUA… If you know that driving causes you to feel stressed and anxious, you can change your anticipation and experience by practicing mindfulness. Follow all the steps below.
- When you get into your car, take a few deep box breaths – breathe in for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, breathe out for a count of 4 and hold for a count of 4.
- Turn your phone to silent. Do not turn on the radio or create other distractions while in the car. You may want to put on some calming music, if silence itself is too distracting. This can be particularly valuable if you have children in the car as it may help them relax.
- As you begin to drive, make an extra effort to notice your surroundings.If you get stuck in traffic or someone cuts you off, notice the feelings that arise (anger, frustration, anxiety, competitiveness), and simply identify them.
- Use traffic stops or other necessary stops to practice a few deep, calming breaths.
- When you arrive at your destination and turn off the engine, sit for a moment and take three deep box breaths as described in step #1. On the exhalation, really let go of any tension you’ve gained during the drive.
The following video is a great tutorial for both box breathing (ideal for controlled situations) and tactical breathing (ideal for active situations when stressors are unpredictable).
42. Practice Transition Breathing
How many times have you raced from one point to another and immediately started doing the activity you came to do?
This seems a diligent, efficient, engaged way to operate. But how much of you still lags behind, processing thoughts or feelings you carried in with you from the last task, the last conversation, a difficult drive from A to B?
Transition Breathing can be a valuable technique to help calm the mind, either in addition to Mindful Driving, or as an alternative practice if that is not practical.
Breathing helps to harness and quiet our thoughts. Allow yourself a mindful moment before you switch gears, so you can approach the next activity in a calmer and more centred way.
The body and mind accumulate a lot of stress on this retinoblastoma journey, whether we are parents, survivors or caring professionals. You may feel physically exhausted and mentally drained. Even on the best days, we are faced with small challenges, decisions, and aggravations that gradually deplete us. It is common to carry that agitation around all day, then bring it home at the end of the day.
Create a mindful transition between each activity throughout the day, or from the demands of your day to the start of your evening. Using a simple visualization practice, pause for a mental vacation. By visualizing your perfect relaxation spot, you can put yourself in a calm, restful, and elevated state of mind that allows you to move on peacefully to your next responsibilities. You can do this as you sit for a few minutes before opening your car door (never while driving), as you walk down the hall to your next meeting, waiting for the bus, anywhere that creates space between…
Here are two brief guided visualisations to help you take a mental vacation. Many longer guided meditations are available on youtube, or for purchase on Audible, iTunes and elsewhere.
Support Quality Sleep
43. Plan for Tomorrow
Do you ever lie in bed thinking “I must remember to do X”, working through the steps involved in doing Y, or masterminding all your tasks into the jigsaw puzzle of available timeslots throughout your day?
Planning the next day before going to bed the night before saves time in the morning. It also helps the brain to relax and sleep better. Writing down tomorrow’s action items can free the mind of the need to remember and worry about certain things, creating more opportunity for the brain to unwind and enter sustained deep sleep.
It can be very tempting to skip nightly reviews and planning in favour of an extra 10 minutes relaxation, watching TV or chatting on social media. But taking that time to think about tomorrow will put you ahead physically and mentally, especially on a potentially hectic and stressful morning.
The planning itself can be a mindfulness exercise, completing some of the morning’s readiness tasks the night before. Making life calmer, simpler, and more streamlined frees the mind to focus on what is most important, rather than reacting to everything.
There is no single method, no right or wrong way to plan for tomorrow – we are all different in what works for us, with widely varied lives. Some people prepare detailed daily action lists. Others use 3-5 simple bullet notes. You will find a wide range of techniques shared online.
In the following video, Amy makes an important differentiation between the To Do List and the daily calendar. She also describes Stephen Covey’s 4 quadrant planning tool, which helps prioritise tasks when there is not enough time in the day to do everything.
44. Improve Your Sleep
Sleep helps our body and mind recover from the day and repair itself. Good sleep brings better focus, clearer thinking, greater productivity and deeper happiness.
Positive and negative stimuli are processed by different parts of the brain. Negative stimuli are handled by the amygdala. Positive or neutral memories are processed by the hippocampus, which is hit harder by sleep deprivation. When we are sleep-deprived, we are more likely to struggle to recall pleasant memories and think positively, while gloomy memories and negative thoughts come to mind easily.
We are also more sensitive to negative emotions when tired. Waking up well-rested reduces sensitivity to negative emotions throughout the day. Taking a 20-30 minute nap mid-afternoon can block sensitivity to negative emotions like fear and anger later in the day, and lead to better night-time sleep.
Create a healthy bedtime routine, set boundaries, and take responsibility for upholding them. Let your family, friends and work colleagues know what your boundaries are. Ask them to understand and respect your routine as vital for your own wellbeing, for the people around you, and for the communities and causes you serve. You may need to repeat a number of times to gently remind people and reinforce your message and protect your quality sleep.
45. Use Guided Sleep Meditations
Guided meditation is an excellent mindfulness tool to aid relaxation and sleep. With guided meditation, you are eased into a meditative state by an individual speaking on a recorded a meditation sequence.
This person talks you through the process step by step, with easy to follow instructions for breathing and visualisation. You can simply listen, let go of the day and all burdens, and relax into sleep.
As you listen to the guide and follow instructions, you will be less focused on your own thoughts and worries – thoughts that can keep you from falling asleep. The soothing effects of guided sleep meditations often result in you falling asleep before the meditation ends, with little or no recollection of it the following morning.
Here is a short guided sleep meditation. There are many short and longer guided meditations available for free on YouTube, as well as samples of tracks available for purchase via apps, Audible and iTunes.