Mind-body therapies

Mind-body therapies may help you to take greater control of your feelings, symptoms and side effects, and improve well-being.

What are mind-body therapies?

Mind-body therapies are based on the belief that what we think and feel can affect our well-being. Like all complementary and alternative therapies, they have no effect on the cancer. But they are often given as part of support for people with cancer.

The mind-body therapies used by people with cancer in the UK are:

  • relaxation techniques
  • meditation
  • hypnotherapy
  • art therapy
  • music therapy
  • movement therapies, such as tai chi and yoga.

Mind-body therapies are available in many cancer treatment centres. They may help you feel less anxious, improve your mood and help you sleep. They can also be used to help with symptoms such as pain, or to reduce side effects caused by cancer treatment.

Mind-body techniques need to be practised regularly to get the best results. Using them for a long time is more effective than just doing them for a short time. Some people find it more motivating to do the techniques in a group.

Some NHS services and support groups offer mind-body therapies. You can ask your hospital whether they provide them, or ask your GP if they can help you access a group. You can also call us on 0808 808 00 00 for details of support groups in your area.

Relaxation techniques

Using relaxation techniques can calm the mind and reduce muscle tension. For some people, this helps reduce anxiety and stress.

There are three common relaxation techniques:

  • Breathing exercises

    You focus on taking slow, deep, even breaths.

  • Progressive muscle relaxation

    You tense and relax each group of muscles in turn until your whole body is relaxed.

  • Guided imagery

    You focus on pleasant images to replace negative or stressful feelings. For example, you might imagine that the sun is shining on you, warming you and giving you strength.

Often, two or more relaxation techniques are used together.

Meditation, hypnotherapy, yoga and tai chi can also promote relaxation.

Almost everyone can use relaxation techniques. They can be learned in one-to-one sessions, as part of a group or at home using an app or CD.

Meditation

Meditation can help to relax and calm the mind. During meditation you learn to focus on the present moment. While doing this, you become aware of your feelings, thoughts, and the sensations in your body. You are encouraged to observe these calmly and without judgement. This helps to train your mind to remain calm and not to think or worry too much.

Possible benefits of meditation include:

  • feeling relaxed
  • feeling less anxious or depressed
  • feeling less stressed
  • being able to better manage chronic pain
  • having more compassion for yourself and others.

There are different types of meditation techniques. Some are spiritual, such as Buddhist meditation. But others are non-spiritual, such as mindfulness meditation.

What is mindfulness meditation?

Mindfulness meditation is a non-spiritual type of meditation. It was developed by psychologists to help people manage problems such as anxiety, stress or chronic pain.

Types of mindfulness meditation include:

  • mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)
  • mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT).

Mindfulness classes may be available through your hospital, GP or a cancer support charity. There are also organisations that can help you find meditation classes. You can search online for meditation classes near you.

There are apps and CDs you can use to meditate at home. Some people find it helpful to meditate in a group until they are familiar with the technique.

Find out more about the benefits of mindfulness on the Be Mindful website. We have more information about the Be Mindful online course.

Hypnotherapy

Hypnotherapy can help you cope with specific phobias, such as a fear of needles. It can also encourage positive emotions, such as calmness and relaxation. Many people use hypnotherapy to help them make lifestyle changes, such as giving up smoking.

Sometimes it is used to reduce side effects of cancer treatment, such as nausea and vomiting or pain. But there is not enough evidence for doctors to recommend it as the main treatment for these problems.

A hypnotherapist will work with you to create a helpful state of mind. They will make suggestions to help change the way you deal with certain situations. You are always in control and can stop the session at any time by simply opening your eyes.

The British Hypnotherapy Association has details of registered practitioners near you.

Art therapy

Art therapy aims to help people to deal with their feelings, rather than produce a work of art. Art therapy is used to help you:

  • explore your feelings
  • express yourself
  • feel less anxious
  • improve your self-confidence.

The art therapist may have training in psychotherapy and will encourage you to communicate your feelings through painting, drawing or sculpting. The therapy can be given one-to-one with the therapist or in groups.

Being creative may help you become more aware of difficult feelings and let go of them. These feelings can then be discussed in counselling or group sessions, if you want to.

You do not need to be able to draw or paint to take part. The art therapist will encourage you to doodle and express yourself freely.

 Art therapy is not widely available for cancer patients on the NHS. The British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT) has details of how to find an art therapist near you.

Music therapy

This therapy aims to improve quality of life, by helping people communicate through music. You do not need to be able to play an instrument or read music. You can do music therapy on your own or as a group.

During the session, you will work with a range of easy-to-use instruments to help show your feelings. If you find it difficult to talk about your feelings, music therapy may help you to express yourself.

Music therapy has also been shown to help relieve symptoms, such as pain. It may also help people cope with anxiety and fatigue.

Music therapy is not widely available for cancer patients on the NHS. The British Association for Music Therapy (BAMT) has details of how to find a music therapist near you.

Movement based therapies

Movement based therapies work directly on your body. They use movement, breathing exercises and a type of meditation or relaxation.

Yoga

There are many types of yoga. They generally use different yoga postures, and often combine this with breathing techniques and meditation. Some types of yoga use very gentle movement. Others may involve more energetic movement.

Yoga is generally safe, but people with some types of cancer may need to adapt some of the positions so they are easier to do. It is important to tell your yoga teacher that you have cancer.

Some people find that yoga can help them cope with cancer and feel better generally. It may help to reduce sleep problems and fatigue. Yoga might also help to relieve menopausal symptoms, such as hot flushes and joint pains. More research into this is needed.

Some hospitals offer yoga classes.

Tai chi and qi gong

Tai chi and qi gong (sometimes spelt chi kung) come from Chinese medical traditions and are suitable for most people.

Both tai chi and qi gong focus on building strength, balance and flexibility. They use slow, fluid movements with guided imagery and deep breathing. If you have fatigue, they can be a good way to get back into doing physical activity.

Together, the physical and mental exercises can help to improve general health, create a feeling of well-being, and reduce fatigue.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our complementary therapies information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

    Cassilieth B. The Complete Guide to Complementary Therapies in Cancer Care: Essential Information for Patients Survivors and Health Professionals. 2011. 

    Ernst E, et al. Oxford Handbook of Complementary Medicine. 2008. 
         

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been approved by Dr Saul Berkovitz.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.