#LIFEREBOOT Find­ing calm­ness af­ter can­cer.

Stephanie Gil­man trains her brain to chill.

Elle (Canada) - - News - By Stephanie Gil­man

i’m ly­ing in bed, lis­ten­ing to the calm­ing sounds of rip­pling wa­ter, when a thought pops into my head: The fridge is empty. I have to buy gro­ceries. What should I make for din­ner this week? One thought leads to an­other, and I no­tice that the quiet na­ture sounds have trans­formed into strong winds and crash­ing waves. I stop my ram­bling thoughts in their tracks and fo­cus on my breath­ing. As I count the breaths (one in… two out… three in…), the wind is re­placed by the sooth­ing stream and then, in the dis­tance, the soft sound of birds chirp­ing hap­pily, sig­nalling that the storm has, in­deed, passed.

This se­quence of events was the re­sult of the vary­ing lev­els of ac­tiv­ity in my brain. No, I have not spon­ta­neously de­vel­oped mag­i­cal pow­ers. (How great would that be, though?) My abil­ity to con­trol na­ture sounds comes from my new­est fash­ion ac­ces­sory: a sleek head­band that goes by the name of “Muse.”

Muse is a brain-sens­ing head­band from Toronto-based tech com­pany In­ter­axon that can help train the mind to be more calm and fo­cused and less stressed. It senses the pulses of elec­tric­ity that bounce be­tween the 100 bil­lion neu­rons in the hu­man brain. When one’s mind is ac­tive, there’s a lot of bounc­ing go­ing on. The goal is to slow things down to a peace­ful, rhyth­mic hop. This claim sounded pretty good to me, as I’ve been look­ing for dif­fer­ent ways to lower stress in my life and halt the nu­mer­ous anx­ious thoughts float­ing around in my mind.

Af­ter putting on the head­band, I start the “Calm” app, which guides me through a sim­ple med­i­ta­tion ex­er­cise. Im­me­di­ately I start to get real-time feed­back on how I’m do­ing. As thoughts en­ter my mind and begin to run amok, the winds pick up, sig­nalling me to come back into the mo­ment and calm my mind. When my mind is very calm, I’m re­warded with more points and the sound of birds tweet­ing. Es­sen­tially, it’s med­i­ta­tion as a game. But does it work?

I spent a month with Muse, us­ing it in the evenings to help re­lax and clear the thoughts of the day. My first ses­sion with Muse told me I was 27-per­cent calm—pretty piti­ful and not re­ally where I want to be in my life right now. But within a few days I had achieved a “score” of h

74-per­cent calm and re­ceived 15 “bonus birds” as a re­ward for my re­laxed men­tal state. “This med­i­ta­tion stuff isn’t so hard,” I thought. “I’ve al­ready mas­tered it; I am pretty much Bud­dha.”

Oh, how quickly the mighty fall.

My mo­ment as a Muse cham­pion did not last long. My ses­sions were all over the place, with sev­eral un­der 50 per­cent. Oc­ca­sion­ally I’d spike back up to a high level of calm, but it rarely lasted more than a day. Once, I even scored a pa­thetic 1 per­cent. A mas­ter of Zen I was not.

Although I didn’t nec­es­sar­ily im­prove all that much at calm­ing my mind, I did keep at it, mak­ing sure that I took at least a few min­utes out of each day to sit, breathe and med­i­tate. Apart from spo­rad­i­cally achiev­ing a de­cent score, I wasn’t so sure the rou­tine was hav­ing any ma­jor ef­fect on my stress lev­els or my abil­ity to con­trol them… un­til a few weeks later, when I be­gan to no­tice wors­en­ing pain around my ribs.

When you’ve had can­cer, any new pain can be cause for alarm. It’s one of the (many) un­for­tu­nate af­ter­ef­fects I’m now stuck deal­ing with. So when I started to feel some mus­cu­lar and bone pain on the side where my can­cer once lived, my thoughts im­me­di­ately spi­ralled down a familiar dark and fran­tic path. What if the can­cer is in my bones? How long will I have left to live? How will I tell my fam­ily? What if I die be­fore the se­ries fi­nale of The Amer­i­cans and never know how it ends?

Tears started to burn my eyes as I ru­mi­nated about the many aw­ful things that might still hap­pen to me and the anger I felt at hav­ing to live with those types of pos­si­bil­i­ties. I cursed my­self for not re­new­ing the pre­scrip­tion for anx­i­ety med­i­ca­tion that was given to me when I was first di­ag­nosed. I was left with only one op­tion: to at­tempt to calm my mind and halt the neg­a­tive thoughts. I sat down, closed my eyes and be­gan count­ing my breaths, in and out, in and out, un­til my heart stopped rac­ing and I started to feel at ease. My body re­laxed, and I felt the panic dis­si­pat­ing. The ex­er­cise ap­peared to ac­tu­ally be work­ing, as it slowly but surely brought me down from the ledge I had cre­ated for my­self. I didn’t need to hear the wind sub­side or the birds chirp­ing to know that I had man­aged to suc­ceed at some­thing that once seemed im­pos­si­ble.

A few days later, I had a bone scan. I learned that ev­ery­thing was fine, which was a huge re­lief. That said, I know that I will never be cured of my anx­i­ety and that th­ese mo­ments of panic are some­thing I will likely have to deal with for the rest of my life. That’s what it is to live a life filled with un­cer­tainty. It’s not easy, but I know now that I am mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion and learn­ing to cope with the many ques­tion marks and what-ifs that sur­round me. I haven’t mas­tered it yet. But if I fo­cus and lis­ten very closely, I can al­most hear that bab­bling brook and the sweet sound of singing birds.

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