Updated: Feb 19
Few things in life can prepare you for an unexpected medical diagnosis. Whether it is a pediatrician telling new parents, “Your child can’t see,” an oncologist explaining to a woman, “the lump in your breast is cancerous,” a specialist proposing a series of tests in an attempt to rule out a spouse’s possible amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or a parent calling an adult child to deliver the news, “Remember when mom got lost on the way home from work? We saw a Doctor. He think’s it is Alzheimer’s Disease.”
There is no set of previous experiences that allow you to easily transition into, “Okay. What now?” Instead, it takes time to process the information, figure out what it means to us, now and in the near and distant future, and determine how to go about dealing with the diagnosis.
Whether a diagnosis involves a temporary condition, a life-threatening illness, or something in between, dealing with the diagnosis is essential to accept healing. Different people will process the information differently. Some will research obsessively. Others turn to prayer. Still others choose not to discuss it. The fact of the matter is a devastating medical diagnosis merits time to grieve. Probably more time than you would ever think.
A Diagnosis May Include Fearing The Life You Lived Is Gone Forever
My daughter was diagnosed with an obscure eye disorder at just nine weeks of age. No one could tell us if she would see, or how much she would see. It would take 9 years to learn what the outcome would be. The simple truth is, no one can live on the edge of anxiety for 9 long years, wondering every day if you are doing enough, if you know enough, if there is something else out there you should do or should learn. That is far too much stress.
While no parent produces the perfect child, at just nine weeks of age, babies are still doing a pretty good job of convincing their parents they may be the first perfect child ever born. Our daughter was no different. Most parents get the luxury of learning their child isn’t perfect as said child is having the mother of all meltdowns in aisle 5 of the grocery store at about age two.
We, on the other hand, learned our child wasn’t perfect during a mount of anxiety while waiting on the 8th floor of a university hospital after having seen 9 specialists in 2 days. It felt like the world had tipped slightly off its axis. Her father and I struggled to deal with our new reality and couldn't even begin to grieve our loss.
Every medical diagnosis comes with loss. The loss of the dream of how you thought your life was going to be. Whether the diagnosis pertains to your child, your spouse, your parent, or yourself, the diagnosis indelibly changes your plans for this one great life. While others may have it worse, or while there may be hope for a full recovery, there is no denying the fact that things are different now. And that merits a grieving process for the loss.
In 1969, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross identified 5 stages of grief, including denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. For many years, Ross’s stages of grief were simply accepted without question. However, a recent study of how the average person processes the loss of a family member both cognitively and emotionally reveals some important information. While the study found participants did indeed experience disbelief, yearning, anger, depression, and acceptance, they did not necessarily do so in succession. Further, the study showed different grief indicators became more or less intense with the passage of time.
Searching For New Normal's And Restructure Meaning
As time went on and I got used to the idea of my child’s condition, I described it to others as our “new normal.”
We learned words like lensectomy and occlusion therapy. Our “normal day” looked different than the days of other people who had children my daughter’s age. Turns out, I’m not the only one who found a “new normal.” Studies on people who experience grief, loss, and chronic pain reveal two themes, “relearning the world” and “adaptation.” Researchers describe it as “relearning the world while walking backwards and living forward.”
The Unexpected Stress That Accompanies Grief
Grief work involves dealing with a lot of unpleasant emotions, such as:
Loss of concentration
Any of these conditions adds considerable stress to our lives. Unfortunately, we can’t undo a medical diagnosis. We may or may not have any ability to impact the severity or length of the condition. So, what are we to do?
There is a significant body of evidence indicating meditation and yoga provide relief from the stress of dealing with a medical diagnosis. I’m not talking about fixing the problem per se, although there is some evidence to suggest yoga and meditation may help with some physical ailments, including back pain and musculoskeletal conditions, managing hypertension, and improving the physical, mental, emotional, and social lives of the elderly, among other things. Instead, I’m talking about using meditation for stress relief, yoga for stress relief, or a combination of both.
Open Yourself To Productive Healing: Meditation & Yoga
In looking at the attendant conditions of grief, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and stressed. Adding a yoga practice or meditation practice may feel like just one more thing in a sea of things to do when caring for yourself or your loved one post diagnosis.
Why add something else to your plate? Fair question.
The short answer?
Yoga and Stress Relief
Denise Watson, yoga teacher and health coach for Vivify Integrative Health, explains why one might consider integrating yoga for stress relief while dealing with a medical diagnosis for themselves or a loved one. Yoga “helps to build emotional resilience, help you stay less stressed and more kind and loving to your spouse or loved one. You will be less freaked out so they will be less stressed out.”
Additionally, yoga teaches people to be “less reactive and more responsive. It teaches you to pause and respond rather than react out of habit, because you spent time on your mat becoming more aware of your thinking and your habits of thought. You don’t live on autopilot anymore.” Cheryl Zupec, yoga instructor and owner of Yoga Giggle in Duluth, Minnesota agrees. “Connecting to yourself is so important to healing, stopping the constant dialogue, quieting the mind.”
Meditation and Stress Relief
Meditation has similar benefits. “The more we resist life, the more we are going to suffer,” says La Sarmiento, Dharma Teacher. The forward-thinking mind, La explains, wants to consider what will happen next and play out different “what if” scenarios. However, these "what if" scenarios often result in even more stress. “Meditation allows us to be right here right now. We don’t get anxious or worked up about what is going to happen in the future.”
But you don’t have to take their word for it. Consider the data supporting yoga and meditation for stress relief, particularly in relation to a medical diagnosis.
When In Doubt, Follow The Science Behind Yoga and Meditation
In 2015, 46 volunteers, who were caregivers to patients with Alzheimer’s disease, participated in an 8-week study where half of them committed to three weekly one hour and 15 minute sessions of yoga and meditation. Factor in drive times, parking, etc. and this seems like a very large commitment, while still caring for their loved ones. Nonetheless, the results were remarkable. Participants reported several benefits, including improved quality of life, increased vitality, a better attention span, and greater self-compassion.
Another study reviewed the literature on using yoga as an evidence-based nursing intervention. This study reviewed the practice of yogic breathing, (pranayama), yoga postures (asanas), and meditation and guided imagery (Dhyana) with cancer patients. Immediate benefits include decreased stress and anxiety, reduced fatigue, enhanced spiritual well-being, and improved flexibility. Other studies also support the premise meditation and yoga can treat stress related conditions and improve mental and physical health.
In Conclusion: Stress Relief in Practice
Cheryl Zupec doesn’t just teach yoga. She shares how she implemented her knowledge of yoga and meditation for stress relief when her mother was dying. “Yoga helped me care for my mother during hospice. I breathed and chanted the Sa Ta Na Ma meditation over and over for my mom, holding her hand. I reminded her to do her ‘yoga breathing.’ I felt that it was a gift to be with her. She taught me so many spiritual lessons throughout her life and had amazing healing hands. I wanted to remind her hands of that.”
When the only thing we can do for a loved one is be there and remind them of the gifts they have given, choosing yoga for stress relief, or meditation for stress relief, or both, can help ground us and keep us present in the moment.
 Kübler-Ross E. On Death and Dying. New York, NY: Macmillan; 1969
 An Empirical Examination of the Stage Theory of Grief Paul K. Maciejewski, PhD; Baohui Zhang, MS; Susan D. Block, MD; et al Holly G. Prigerson, PhD JAMA. 2007;297(7):716-723
 Dealing with grief related to loss by death and chronic pain: An integrated theoretical framework. Part 1 Bodil Furnes and Elin Dysvik, Patient Prefer Adherence 2010; 4:135 – 140.
 Research-Based Perspectives on the Psychophysiology of Yoga, Chapter 10 Research-Based Applied Psychophysiology: Yoga for Occupational Stress and Health, Ned Hartfiel, Rhiannon Tudor Edwards (2017)
 The Efficacy and Safety of Yoga in Managing Hypertension, H. Cramer, Exp Clin Endocrinol Diabetes 2016; 124(02):65-70.
 Evidence based effects of yoga practice on various health related problems of elderly people: A review
A.Mooventhan, L.Nivethitha, Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, Vol 21, Issue 4 (October 2017) 1028-1032.
 Yoga and compassion meditation program improve quality of life and self‐compassion in family caregivers of Alzheimer's disease patients: A randomized controlled trial Marcelo AD Danucalov, Elisa H Kozasa, Rui F Afonso, José CF Galduroz, José R Leite, Epidemiology, Clinical Practice and Health (2015)
 Evidence-Based Yoga Interventions for Patients With Cancer, Angela Sisk, MSN, RN, OCN®, AHN-BC, CYN, and Marsha Fonteyn, PhD, Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing, Vol 20 No. 2 (2016).
 Jayaram Thimmapuram, Robert Pargament, Kedesha Sibliss, Rodney Grim, Rosana Risques & Erik Toorens (2017) Effect of heartfulness meditation on burnout, emotional wellness, and telomere length in health care professionals, Journal of Community Hospital Internal Medicine Perspectives, 7:1, 21-27
 Healing with Spiritual Practices, Chapter Six: Yoga to Promote Physical, Mental, and Spiritual Well Being (2018)