Mind-body techniques

Friday 1 May, 2015

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On this page: Support groups | Relaxation and meditation | Counselling | Hypnotherapy | Art therapy | Music therapy | Life coaching | Spiritual practices


Mind-body techniques are based on the belief that what we think and feel can affect our physical and mental wellbeing. 

Examples of mind-body techniques include counselling, support groups, hypnotherapy, relaxation, meditation, spiritual practices, life coaching, art therapy and music therapy.

Some techniques, such as support groups and counselling, have now become part of standard cancer care. Spiritual practices are also discussed because of the important part they play in many people's lives and its value in providing emotional support. 

Mind-body techniques may also be called psychological techniques, emotional therapies or spiritual healing.

The mind-body connection

The mind and the body are linked. When our emotions or mental state are under pressure, our physical body can be affected. Similarly, physical symptoms can have a negative impact on our mood and mental wellbeing.

Many complementary therapies focus on the mind-body connection in different ways. Acupuncture, tai chi, qi gong, yoga and massage can help with both emotional and physical problems. However, as these techniques are firstly directed at the physical body (e.g. needling pressure points or moving the limbs into a certain pose), they're described further on our 'Body-based practices' page.

Benefits

Scientific studies suggest that mind-body techniques can benefit people who have cancer or are recovering from it. Some therapies allow people to explore the emotions that friends and family may not be able to relate to. Evidence also shows that mind-body techniques may reduce the symptoms and side effects of cancer and its treatment.

These include pain, anxiety, stress, low self-esteem, fear and difficulty sleeping, which can all affect mood and overall wellbeing. Using self-help techniques may help people feel more in control of their situation, more relaxed and less fearful of the future.

Mind-body techniques give you the opportunity to discuss your thoughts, feelings and concerns in a safe and confidential environment. You may find using these techniques gives you relief, or a sense of peace or understanding.

Side effects

Sometimes people feel overwhelmed by the emotions they experience during or after a session. This usually settles soon afterwards. If not, contact your therapist for further support.

Support groups

What they are

Organised groups where people with cancer and their families can meet other people going through a similar experience.They include face-to-face and telephone support groups, online discussion forums and peer support programs.

Why use them

Getting in touch with other people living with cancer can be very beneficial. Groups offer practical and emotional support and can be helpful at all stages of cancer.

What to expect

In these support settings, most people feel they can speak openly and share their experiences with others.

Evidence

There's strong evidence that cancer support groups improve quality of life. Research has found that joining a group helps reduce distress, depression and anxiety. Studies have also shown benefits in people using online health forum.

Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for information on counselling, support programs and online discussion groups. 

Relaxation and meditation 

What they are

Relaxation usually includes slow breathing and muscle-loosening exercises to physically and mentally calm the body. Meditation is an ancient practice that involves focusing on a single thing, such as your breathing. There are many different types of meditation. Mindfulness meditation means being aware and present in each moment, while guided imagery or visualisation use your imagination to create healing thoughts.

Why use them

Relaxation and meditation may help to release muscle tension and reduce anxiety.

What to expect

Lying or sitting in a comfortable position, you're led through a series of exercises that focus on breath work and calming the mind. Often, serene music is played to create a peaceful environment. After a period of relaxation, you'll usually be prompted to stay awake to enjoy your relaxed state of mind.

Evidence

There is good evidence to show that relaxation and meditation lower the levels of stress hormones in your body, which can assist in healing and improving immune function.

Clinical studies have shown that people being treated for cancer who practise relaxation have lower levels of anxiety, stress, pain and depression. Studies on meditation have shown it helps improve the quality of life of people with cancer, increases coping, and can reduce pain, anxiety, depression and nausea.

Some hospitals, cancer support groups and community centres offer relaxation or meditation groups. There are also many self-help CDs, DVDs and smartphone apps that will guide you through the different techniques. You can order a free copy of our relaxation CD and meditation CD.

Counselling

What it is

Through discussions with a counsellor or psychologist, you can identify both positive and troubling aspects in your life. You may choose to focus on your goals or your positive relationships, or you may decide to discuss particular problems or challenges you are facing. Counselling allows you to explore ways of resolving negative thoughts and feelings that impact on your health and day-to-day life.

Why use it

Counselling allows you to identify, understand and express your emotions, motivations, life choices and behaviours in a safe, objective and confidential environment. It can help with self-esteem, communication and relationships.

What to expect

Consultations are usually face to face, but if you live in a remote area or require crisis counselling, you may be able to talk with your counsellor over the phone or online.

A counsellor will ask questions about why you have decided to speak to them and what aspects of your life you wish to talk about.

They can often help you to clarify your thoughts so you can work out how to resolve any challenges yourself. Sometimes a counsellor will simply provide a non-judgemental, listening ear to allow you to talk through events that have caused you to feel negative emotions.

Evidence

There's long-established evidence of the benefits of counselling. However, it's important that you find a suitably qualified counsellor you feel comfortable talking with. Ask your general practitioner (GP) for a referral.

'No matter how good your support people are, sometimes you need someone who's professionally trained.' — Wendy, bowel cancer patient
Differences between counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists
  • Counsellor: A counsellor's education may range from a vocational certificate in counselling through to university-level studies in psychology, social work or counselling. There's no one standard of qualification required. Counsellors listen to clients, offer support and help them come up with strategies for managing the issues they choose to focus on. Counsellors don't prescribe medication, but if they're also qualified in a complementary therapies discipline, such as flower remedies, they may dispense these as part of their treatment plan.

  • Psychologist: A registered psychologist in Australia must complete four years of psychology at an undergraduate level, followed by either postgraduate studies in psychology or two years of supervised clinical practice. Psychologists who specialise in counselling use their understanding of the working of the mind to guide clients through issues with how they think, feel and learn. They can't prescribe medication.

  • Psychiatrist: A psychiatrist is a trained medical doctor who has specialised in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illness. As well as discussing issues with a client, a psychiatrist may prescribe medication to help a range of mental and emotional conditions. 

See your GP for a referral to these practitioners, as you may be eligible for a Medicare rebate for some of these services.

Hypnotherapy

What it is

Deep relaxation is used to help people become more aware of their inner thoughts. This can help them overcome mental blocks that have previously stopped them from dealing with anxiety, fear, low self-esteem, pain, insomnia and unwanted habits such as smoking.

Why use it

Hypnotherapy can improve mental wellbeing and quality of life.

What to expect

Your therapist will take a case history and then lead you into a deeply relaxed state, known as an altered state of consciousness. Being in a relaxed state allows your subconscious to focus on your treatment goals, which then become more achievable for your conscious mind.

Evidence

Hypnotherapy has been clinically tested with good results for helping people cope with pain, anxiety and nausea related to cancer treatment

Art therapy

What it is

A way of using visual art to express feelings. An art therapist helps you explore the images you've created to encourage understanding of your emotions and concerns. 

Why use it

You can work through issues that surface from your art. Other benefits include solving problems, improved mood and stress reduction.

What to expect

Art therapy may be done individually or in groups - some hospitals run programs. You don't need artistic talent to participate or benefit – the emphasis is on the precess of producing work, not the end result. Your art may be created any way: drawing, painting, collage, sculpture or digitally. You'll have an opportunity to discuss the work with the therapist – either the process of producing it or what the end result means to you.

Evidence

Clinical studies have shown that art therapy leads to improvements in symptoms of fatigue. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it improves coping skills, emotional wellbeing and quality of life.

'The most significant change that occurred for me from art therapy was finding a way to express difficult feelings. Sometimes there aren't words to describe what you've been through. Yet, art therapy helped me find a way to share my experience. It was very positive.' — Ray, prostate cancer patient

Music therapy

What it is

The use of music to improve health and wellbeing. A music therapist helps people engage with different aspects of music.

Why use it

Music therapy can help people express themselves, feel more in control, focus on healing, feel less anxious, and simply enjoy themselves in the moment.

What to expect

Music therapy is used in several cancer centres around Australia. You don’t need to be musical to participate or benefit. The way a music therapy session is conducted will depend on the needs of the participants. You may play instruments, sing or write lyrics, or you can simply listen to music and discuss how it affects you.

Evidence

Some studies in people with cancer have shown that music therapy can improve quality of life and reduce side effects of treatment such as anxiety and nausea.

Life coaching

What it is

Life coaching is a type of counselling in which a coach works with you to set goals and work out ways to change your life to achieve them.

Why use it

Life coaching allows people to make positive changes for their future. It helps people develop their personal, spiritual, physical and professional lives.

What to expect

Your life coach will help you clarify your thoughts about what you want in life, and to reassess your beliefs or values that may have prevented you from experiencing fulfilment in the past. Sessions can be face to face, over the phone or online.

Evidence

There's limited clinical evidence available about the benefits of life coaching. However, one small study has shown that it may help people cope better with life after cancer treatment.

Spiritual practices

What it is

Spirituality is a very individual concept. For some, it may mean being part of an organised religion such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam or Buddhism. For others, spirituality may reflect their own individual beliefs about the universe and their place in it, or a search for meaning and purpose to their lives. Often when people are diagnosed with cancer, the spiritual aspect of their lives becomes more important.

Why use it

People often find comfort in prayer, meditation or quiet contemplation. Receiving pastoral care from a religious or spiritual adviser or a hospital chaplain can often help people, even if they're not part of an organised religion.

What to expect

If you're part of a spiritual or religious community, you may benefit from:

  • prayer or meditation groups
  • a feeling of unity from the congregation
  • healing services for the sick
  • practical and spiritual support offered by members of your religious community.

If you are not part of a formal community, you can seek further information and support about your area of spiritual interest from support groups, friendship groups, your local library or online.

Evidence

There's growing scientific evidence of a positive link between spirituality and health.   


Reviewed by:  Dr Haryana Dhillon, Research Fellow, Survivorship Research Group, Deputy Director, Centre for Medical Psychology & Evidence-based Decision-making, University of Sydney, and Chair, Clinical Oncology Society of Australia Survivorship Group, NSW; Dr Kylie Dodsworth, GP, VicePresident, Australasian Integrative Medicine Association, SA; Lauren Muir, Accredited Practising Dietitian, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Shavita Patel, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; A/Prof Evelin Tiralongo, Lecturer and Researcher in Complementary Medicine, School of Pharmacy, Griffith University, QLD; Gabrielle Toth, Consumer; Dr Xiaoshu Zhu, Director, Academic Program for Chinese Medicine, Senior Lecturer, School of Science and Health, and Researcher, National Institute of Complementary Medicine, University of Western Sydney, NSW.

Updated: 01 May, 2015