The word meditation has become ubiquitous in American culture since Johnny Carson popularized it on everyone’s favorite late night show in the 1960s, yet many people still don’t know what it is, especially those in marginalized communities. Similarly, people who are religious may fear underlying proselytizing.

When people are confronted with a diagnosis of cancer, shock and fear often open them to new coping strategies such as integrative medicine (IM). To that end, nurses and social workers are in ideal positions to introduce meditation practice to patients and caregivers as a tool to address stress.

Using a 3-step introduction helps when talking about meditation, especially with those who are new to the concept of IM.

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First, educate the patient: meditation is a practice to help quiet the mind and focus attention. This simplifies the practice and immediately identifies its benefits. The need for quieting the mind and focusing attention is more pronounced during a crisis such as receiving a cancer diagnosis, when both peace and focus are challenged on multiple fronts.

Second, provide analogies that can normalize the technique: recitative prayer, walks in nature, soft music, silence, a cup of tea; and, believe it or not, running, fishing, and other individualized sports, as well. These steps paint a familiar picture patients can relate to and normalize an understanding of how they might already be engaging in some form of meditation.

After 45 years of practicing meditation and 20 years teaching it, I am still surprised at how that simple beginning, even for experienced meditators, creates or reinforces a foundation for the practice. However, the third step is the most crucial: breath.

Breath Techniques

In a crisis of cancer, like all crises, our fight-or-flight response kicks in and can lead us into a state of chronic hyperarousal. Introducing a 3-breath exercise to bring one back to the parasympathetic nervous system is crucial, and even by itself, managing breath can produce enormous benefit when fear begins to take over. Oncology nurses know the importance of healthy breathing better than anyone. Grounding people in diaphragmatic breathing can be fun, provide a point of focus, and offer a simple way to calm the mind and body.

Here are two common breathing exercises. Place one hand on the chest and the other on the abdomen, with thumb on the navel; stand profile to a mirror and watch your chest and stomach expand and contract with each breath. Standing, put your hands on the bottom of the ribcage and feel the expansion when you breathe in, especially in the back. Breathing exercises are not unique to meditation — other psychological theories, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), also incorporate the importance of breath.