Mind-Body Approaches

Also known by these names

  • Art therapy
  • Biofeedback
  • Cognitive-behavioral stress management
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Consciousness-changing therapies
  • Guided imagery
  • Guided meditation
  • Hypnosis
  • Hypnotherapy
  • Hypnotic suggestion
  • Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)
  • Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)
  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Music therapy
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Psychedelic therapies
  • Psycho-education
  • Psychosocial interventions
  • Qigong
  • Self hypnosis
  • Simonton method
  • Support groups
  • Tai chi
  • Transcendental Meditation
  • Walking meditation
  • Yoga

Key Points

  • Mind-body therapies include many diverse techniques, all with a goal of relaxing or clarifying the mind. Some also relax the body.
  • BCCT’s interest in these therapies lies in their success in improving wellness and quality of life for cancer patients.
  • Several of these therapies have been recommended in practice guidelines to improve wellness and improve quality of life in cancer patients.
  • Most mind-body therapies involve very little risk, although others require trained supervision.
  • Some therapies can be practiced alone, but others are best conducted under trained supervision or guidance.
  • These therapies are most likely beneficial across a wide range of cancers, even though research to date may focus on only a few cancer types.

Mind-body approaches include several techniques. Some have a goal of relaxing both mind and body. Some focus on clarifying the mind, improving focus, enhancing decision-making capacity, managing stress or resolving conflict. Many of these techniques are associated with reduced levels of pain, fatigue, stress, anxiety, nausea and vomiting, depression, sleep disruption or other symptoms common in cancer and cancer treatments.

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Clinical Practice Guidelines

2009 evidence-based clinical practice guidelines for integrative oncology included “incorporation as part of a multidisciplinary approach for reducing anxiety, mood disturbance, and chronic pain and for improving quality of life in cancer patients. Evidence shows the benefit of support groups, supportive/expressive therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and cognitive-behavioral stress management.”1

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Managing Side Effects and Promoting Wellness

Managing or relieving side effects or symptoms, reducing treatment toxicity, supporting quality of life or promoting general well-being

Because many of these therapies generally involve very little risk and may improve quality of life, many practitioners are comfortable recommending them for patients.

Studying the effectiveness of these therapies is difficult because of the challenges in creating controls and placebo conditions. However, mounting evidence shows benefits for cancer patients from several of these therapies, as described below. These therapies are most likely beneficial across a wide range of cancers, even though research to date may focus on only a few cancer types. Because many of these therapies generally involve very little risk and may improve quality of life, many practitioners are comfortable recommending them for patients.

Specific Therapies

Art Therapy

Art therapy is an expressive therapy that uses the creative process of making art to improve physical, mental and emotional well-being.4

Biofeedback

Patients using biofeedback are connected to electrical sensors or other instruments that report information about body status back to the patient. Information may include heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, muscle contraction, brain waves, sweat glands or skin temperature. The goal is for the patient to learn responses and actions that move these markers in the desired direction. While in the past, patients had to visit clinics, hospitals or physical therapists to access instruments, wearable devices are now available.

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Regular practice several times a day can be an effective tool in managing your stress response.

Theta Brain State

Theta brain state “is a state where tasks become so automatic that you can mentally disengage from them. The ideation (formation of ideas or concepts) that can take place during the theta state is often free flow and occurs without censorship or guilt. It is typically a very positive mental state.”6

Breathing

Breathing is one of the simplest, most basic and yet powerful tools to manage a state of stress. Adjusting your breathing can be done anywhere and at any time. Deep diaphragmatic breathing is belly or abdominal breathing in which the belly, rather than the chest, expands when inhaling. This type of breathing resets the autonomic nervous system and has the following effects:7

  • Decrease oxygen consumption, heart and breath rate
  • Increase theta wave state and parasympathetic activity
  • Generally feeling alert and invigorated

The Relaxing Breath

Shanti Norris, a Yoga teacher who works with people with cancer simply explains: “One cannot feel anxious as long as one is breathing slowly and deeply.” Here are her instructions for managing stress with “The Relaxing Breath”:8

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Cognitive-Behavioral Stress Management

This psychotherapy approach combines meditation with a variety of cognitive-behavioral strategies, such as problem solving and interpersonal communication. The goal is to recognize and alter responses to negative thoughts.9

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Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT, a type of psychotherapy, aims to help patients change behavior by changing thoughts and feelings. Used to treat mental, emotional, personality and behavioral disorders such as insomnia and depression, CBT has also been used to treat anticipatory nausea and vomiting.

A study investigated a single half-day group intervention for ovarian cancer survivors. The intervention included sexual health education and rehabilitation training, relaxation and cognitive behavioral therapy skills to address sexual symptoms, followed by a single tailored booster telephone call four weeks after the group. The intervention led to significantly improved overall sexual functioning and psychological distress that were maintained at a six-month follow-up.11

Guided Imagery

“Guided imagery involves using the imagination to create a specific sensory experience to achieve a clinical goal, such as promoting overall well-being or treating specific symptoms. The National Comprehensive Cancer Network recommends both imagery and hypnosis as effective treatments for anticipatory nausea and vomiting. A review of more than 100 imagery studies found that compared with no treatment, imagery was more helpful for treating depression, anxiety, discomfort, and quality of life, but its effects were similar to other mind-body interventions such as hypnosis and relaxation alone.”12

Hypnotherapy

Also referred to as hypnosis or hypnotic suggestion, this therapy is usually done with the help of a therapist using verbal repetition and mental images to create a trance-like state. Hypnosis can reduce pain, nausea and vomiting, hot flashes, fatigue and anxiety. “A review of all studies of hypnosis for cancer patients concluded that hypnosis is a viable means of reducing pain and anxiety without side effects, while allowing patients to play an active role in their comfort and well-being.”13 Hypnotherapy is generally considered safe when administered by a trained professional, but some mental health conditions preclude its use. Patients can learn this skill and therefore, after instruction, perform a type of hypnosis on themselves. See more on the CAM-Cancer website: Hypnotherapy.

Meditation and Mindfulness-based Clinical Interventions

All forms of meditation have the aim of reducing stress, mood disturbances and fatigue, as well as improving quality of life.

All forms of meditation have the aim of reducing stress, mood disturbances and fatigue, as well as improving quality of life. Meditation generally strives to focus attention, regulate breathing, and raise awareness of thoughts and feelings to achieve inner calm, physical relaxation, psychological balance and improved vitality and coping. Participants practice approaching thoughts and feelings without judgment.

Tai Chi or Qigong: What’s the Difference?

The follow summary draws from Tai Chi Society,14 The Qigong Institute,15 and Livestrong.com.16

The qi (also spelled chi) is “the life energy that flows through the body’s energy pathways.” Tai chi and qigong both cultivate the qi by combining movement, breathing and meditation.

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Some meditation practices include movement or energy, including these:

  • Qigong
  • Tai chi
  • Walking meditation
  • Yoga

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Music Therapy

Music therapy may include playing instruments, vocal and instrumental improvisation, singing, composing, music-guided imagery and listening to music. The goal is usually to address physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs. Music interventions may affect anxiety, depression, fatigue, pain and quality of life in cancer patients, with small impacts on heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure. Music therapy is considered safe. See more on the CAM-Cancer website: Music therapy.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

This therapy involves successively tensing and relaxing major skeletal muscle groups to reduce feelings of tension, to lower perceived stress, and to induce relaxation. Some evidence indicates that patients participating in PMR training have experienced reduced anxiety, pain and symptoms of depression, as well as improvements in sleep parameters and overall quality of life. A review in 2017 categorized relaxation techniques ”as having preliminary positive evidence” for pain management.20 PMR is generally considered  safe. See more on the CAM-Cancer website: Progressive Muscle Relaxation.

Psychedelic Therapies

Psychedelic therapies are used to “produce a nonordinary state of consciousness for religious or spiritual purposes.”21 They may also be used to reduce anxiety and promote wellness.

Also known as entheogenic therapies, psychedelic substances or psychotropic substances, these are typically of two origins:

  1. Entheogenic substances naturally produced by organisms, such as psilocybin produced by hundreds of varieties of mushrooms
  2. Synthesized substances such as MDMA (ecstasy)

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Simonton Method

The Simonton method of counseling for cancer patients combines cognitive-behavioral elements, relaxation exercises, guided imagery and meditation. This method aims to prolong survival time and improve quality of life. See more on the CAM-Cancer website: Simonton Method and the Simonton Cancer Center website.

Support Groups

Support groups provide a safe place for patients to share feelings and challenges, helping many people cope with the emotional aspects of cancer.

Support groups provide a safe place for patients to share feelings and challenges, helping many people cope with the emotional aspects of cancer. Groups also allow people to learn from others facing similar situations.22

 In his book Life Over Cancer, Keith Block suggests that support groups are most helpful during or after treatment rather than right after diagnosis. Benefits of a structured support group may include these:23

  • Confidential expression of concerns, fears and anger
  • Development of new or strengthened coping skills
  • Enhanced communication and a closer connection to those who matter most in your life
  • Warding off isolation and disconnection
  • Opportunities for relaxation, cognitive reframing and self-hypnosis training
  • Meditation guidance
  • Opportunities to laugh with people who can readily appreciate the difficulties of finding special moments of joy

See our Sharing Love & Support page for further information.

Other Psychosocial and Behavioral Interventions

A 2017 review found these benefits among breast cancer survivors:24

  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), using acceptance and mindfulness strategies and promoting commitment to behavior change, increasing psychological flexibility and adaptability. Studies show preliminary evidence for reduced anxiety and symptoms of depression.
  • Behavioral lifestyle interventions, focusing on increasing health behaviors, primarily physical activity. Benefits include improvements in fatigue, symptoms of depression, body image and health-related quality of life.
  • Couples-focused interventions, psychological interventions for breast cancer survivors and their partners. These interventions may impact quality of life, distress, relationship functioning and physical symptoms.
  • Meaning-Centered Psychotherapy (MCP), targeting psychological, existential and spiritual distress of advanced survivors. Benefits include improvements in quality of life, symptoms of depression and hopelessness.
  • Supportive-Expressive Therapy (SET), promoting peer social support and expression of emotions and existential concerns and focuses on facing and grieving losses. Benefits include improvements in symptoms of depression, hopelessness and helplessness, trauma symptoms, and social functioning.

Integrative Plans, Protocols and Medical Systems

For more information about plans and protocols, see our Integrative Plans and Protocols page.

Non-cancer Uses of Mind-Body Approaches

Mind-body techniques have been used with these conditions and situations:31

  • Arthritis
  • Balance problems (such as from Parkinson’s disease)
  • High blood pressure
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Labor and delivery
  • Low bone density
  • Obesity and weight loss
  • Sleep disorders
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Urinary incontinence

Psychological and psychosocial therapies have been used with these conditions and situations:32

  • Easing pregnancy, labor and delivery
  • Reducing high blood pressure
  • Improving digestion
  • Maintaining normal blood sugar levels
  • Increasing blood flow to major muscles
  • Reducing muscle tension and chronic pain
  • Improving concentration and mood
  • Improving sleep quality
  • Lowering fatigue
  • Addressing mental illness

BCCT has not reviewed the effectiveness of these therapies for non-cancer uses.

Written by Nancy Hepp, MS, and reviewed by Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS; most recent update on December 5, 2018. BCCT has not conducted an independent review of mind-body therapies research. This summary draws from several sources:

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