Rest improves your sense of well-being and quality of life.
“Rest doesn't necessarily mean sleep. It does, however, mean ceasing from strenuous work. Taking time to read a book, pet an animal, listen to peaceful music,
meditate, pray or whatever helps you find a sense of peace.”
Cancer treatment is hard not only on the body but also takes its toll on your mental and emotional health. The treatment journey can be riddled with ups and downs; things may not go your way, and there is a burden and fear while waiting for the results of tests and scans, all of which can make life exhausting. In addition, getting the right kind of sleep for the right amount of time, which is essential for recovery, rarely happens during treatment or even afterward during survivorship.
While good sleep is essential for survival, is restorative, and helps with physical fatigue, pain, and discomfort, rest or conscious relaxation, which is different from sleep, is equally important to help you endure your cancer journey. This idea of consciously making sure you are getting enough rest may be new to you. It certainly was to me when I heard about it a couple of years ago in a TED talk by Saundra Dalton-Smith, MD.
Understanding the difference between rest and sleep can help you figure out what your personal needs are.
Sleep is a non-negotiable part of your daily routine. Without quality sleep you can’t form or maintain the pathways in your brain that let you learn and create new memories, and it’s harder to concentrate and respond quickly.
Rest is a quiet, relaxing time when the body can re-group. It is different from sleep in that the mind is still attuned to external stimuli; however, no movement or work is happening. Rest can be any activity that soothes, calms, and regulates your nervous system, and it can be active or passive. Rest occurs whenever activities, both physical and mental, are intentionally set aside to promote a state of relaxation.
“Rest is the most underused, chemical-free, safe and effective alternative therapy available to us,” Saundra Dalton-Smith, MD
For cancer patients, it is absolutely necessary to consciously incorporate rest into their routine to deal with the stresses of cancer treatment. Resting both your body and mind can help you tolerate the side effects of treatment. Learning to rest effectively can help give the brain the time and ability to do the housekeeping that it needs to continue functioning optimally and help with brain fog. It can help your body recover effectively, so you can tolerate treatment with ease. Re-imagining our relationship with rest involves learning that rest is imperative not just for recovery but also for our total well-being. There are seven types of rest: mental, spiritual, emotional, social, sensory, creative, and physical.
Proper skin care during and after radiation therapy can help manage these skin side effects so that you can go through treatment with some level of comfort and prevent symptoms from worsening. To help prepare yourself, ask your cancer care team ahead of time what skin changes you may expect during radiation therapy. Plan how you will deal with skin reactions. Remember that, in most cases, these skin changes are temporary and may go away when treatment ends.
Cancer and its treatment can cause you to:
- Feel foggy and not fully functional.
- Have trouble maintaining attention, focusing on a task, or concentrating.
- Lash out at your family, close friends, or coworkers about things that don’t matter.
- Feel overwhelmed by tasks or projects that were previously were easy to accomplish.
- Lie in bed at night, physically exhausted but unable to fall asleep.
To unwind your mind and reduce mental fatigue, you need to actively embrace mental rest. One way is to learn how to take a break from the constant chatter in your brain and embrace stillness and quiet. Guided meditation and breath work can help relax your mind. It might sound strange to talk about exercise as being restful, but moving the body also creates changes that help clear the mind. Walking, sitting in nature, or forest bathing (time spent immersed in nature) is another opportunity for resting your brain. Another way is to do journaling before you go to bed and write down your worries and thoughts that prevent you from getting adequate sleep or rest.
Giving your senses rest in our incredibly overstimulated world can be hard but very necessary. Bright lights, computer screens, constant scrolling on the phone, social media bombardment, background noise from a 24-hour news cycle, and multiple conversations, whether they’re in the office or at home via Zoom, can overwhelm the senses. An act as simple as closing your eyes for a minute or two every hour during the day can make a huge difference. Take time to unplug and intentionally stay away from your devices and electronics each day for a little while, which will do wonders for your sensory rest. Stepping outside in nature and taking deep breaths of fresh air for even 15 minutes a day will help your nervous system rest. Wear fabrics that promote calmness. Get rid of itchy, scratchy tags and clothing. Try to eliminate ultra-processed foods from your diet. You can start small. Try taking a break from one processed item in your diet for a month and see how it improves your ability to enjoy and digest nutritious food better.
Social rest is needed when we fail to differentiate between those relationships that revive us and those that exhaust us. Cancer and its treatment can be exhausting by themselves, so it is all the more important to surround yourself with positive and supportive people who ground you and validate you and who can help you bear this trauma, work through treatment, and enter survivorship. Here are some ways to support social rest:
- Taking a break from socializing and social commitments
- Replying to messages only when you have the capacity
- Practice mindfully listening to others to deepen connection.
- Prioritizing face-to-face interactions
- Connecting with groups online that share similar values or interests
Dealing with cancer can be traumatic and can be demoralizing as well as question your faith and belief system. For many cancer patients and caregivers, spiritual strength is critical in the fight against cancer. Spiritual rest can help you maintain a sense of hope, faith and courage in the face of the disease. Developing your own personal spiritual care plan can help feed your faith and not your fears. This can include:
- Praying alone or with a trusted person
- Meditating regularly, taking time to reflect and nurture your spirit and developing a deeper connection to your inner voice can help deal with the fears related to cancer.
- Reading scriptures or books that build your spiritual knowledge
- Connecting with activities that lift your spirit, such as prayer meets, art therapy, music therapy, walks, laughter therapy and rest are all healthy ways to build spiritual rest.
There are different ways to achieve creative rest, but they all have a few things in common. If you want to achieve it, there are a few things you need to do. First, try to be in a comfortable environment with no distractions—that means no scrolling on your phone on social media and no TV. Try to relax by closing your eyes and taking deep breaths. There are several videos on YouTube that can help with understanding how breath works and how it can help you rest your mind and body. Here is one such video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N2wR1OWhD4s. It’s also essential to be mentally calm, so try to let go of your worries or stresses using deep breathing as one way, at least for a brief period of time. Once you have laid the groundwork to achieve creative rest, it is essential to stay committed to it. Do not try to actively solve problems or think about things related to your work. Be committed and regular with this practice, and you will slowly begin to learn how to be still and let your brain relax. You can also try the following:
- Listen to music, read books, or listen to calming, interesting podcasts.
- Travel if you can to places that inspire you, ground you, or are connected to fond memories. It helps if these places are in nature.
- Taking a break from creative projects can be exhausting.
- Take scheduled breaks while at work or even at home to let yourself breathe and relax your mind and body.
Emotional exhaustion lies at the heart of coping with cancer and its treatment. As your emotional resources are used up in trying to cope with challenging situations during your cancer journey, such as overwhelming demands of treatment, financial worries, a lack of support at work or at home, and worries about your future wellbeing, your sense of contentment and capacity to care for yourself and others are diminished. Making room for emotional rest by reducing the drain on your emotional resources, learning to conserve them, and regularly replenishing them is necessary. One way to practice emotional rest is to find a willing and compassionate listener—a friend or family member—with whom you can express your feelings without fear of judgment. Another way is to try group therapy or talk to a trained professional, such as a mental therapist, who can validate your feelings and give you tools to work through this difficult time in your life. Here are a few examples of emotional rest that you can try on your own:
- Validating your own feelings (i.e., “I am scared, and it’s okay to feel this way”)
- Labeling emotions means identifying what you are feeling as you’re experiencing it in order to create distance from your reaction. This is a game-changing skill that reduces the influence negative feelings like anger or frustration have over you.
- Seeking spaces and people that provide comfort, reassurance, and a sense of emotional safety
- Putting a stop to comparisons and honoring your unique self
- Practicing authenticity, listing your strengths, and what you love about yourself
- Practicing awareness of emotions, what depletes you (situations, places, people), and what energies you
- Going to therapy regularly
- Journaling about your emotions
- Paying attention to your experiences from moment-to-moment, focusing on your breathing, spending 10 minutes each day thinking about what you’re grateful for, or intentionally looking for what’s positive are other ways to refuel your emotional tank.
Passive physical rest is when your body is asleep, like when you are sleeping at night. Active physical rest, on the other hand, is an activity that restores the body, like yoga, massage therapy, or stretching. Physical rest recharges and repairs the body. Moreover, sleep is not the only source of physical rest. We actually need active forms of rest to help us restore ourselves and re-energize our bodies. Here are a few examples of physical rest:
- Mindful and consistent breathing practices
- Stretches and mindful movement focus on letting go of tension in every muscle of your body, starting at the toes and slowly working your way up to the top of your head. The yoga practice of ‘shavasana’ (the corpse pose) can help with this. Here is a link to help you practice it mindfully: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G1j3erpSErE.
- Getting a massage or using fascia massage balls
- Laying on the ground or leaning with supports and a cushion under the knees and being still for a period of time
- Taking a warm or hot bath with aromatherapy salts or oils in the bath water that can calm you
- Take a 10-minute walk around the block. When we walk, researchers find that soothing neurons are activated in our brain.
- Complementary practices such as acupuncture and energy therapy to balance the energy flow, reduce stress and anxiety, and promote well-being are another way to practice physical rest.
“If you're struggling with the post-cancer syndrome of "Gotta get it done because time's running out," try to remember that none of us are promised tomorrow… There's no reason to wear yourself out trying to cram as much as possible into the minutes, hours, and days you have left.”
The number of cancer survivors continues to increase in the United States due to the growth and aging of the population as well as advances in early detection and treatment. It is vital that you take care of your body, mind, and emotions to improve your quality of life and long-term outcomes. Getting adequate rest is part of that long-term goal.