Support Tools: From Surviving to Thriving

This Support Tool contains excerpts from Ingrid Exner’s collection of self-help tips and images; the full collection can be found in her book, “From Surviving to Thriving: In Words and Images.”

Ingrid is a professional writer, photographer and motivational speaker. She is also a brain tumour survivor.

Part 1: Physical Health and Wellbeing

Laugh – Giggle your way to greater health

Laugh often and laugh for the healing power. Laughter has many positive and healing side effects such as reducing stress, blood pressure, hypertension and pain. Laughter also improves breathing. By laughing, we are first expelling trapped air from our lungs (on the exhale) and then quickly breathing in new air (on the inhalation of breathe). Therefore, laughter is a great cardiovascular exercise. Laughter is an amazing alternative to those who have ambulatory issues or are restricted by a wheelchair as it can be done without extreme physical effort. Laughter has been a great source of strength in my own recovery process. People worldwide are being introduced to the healing effects of laughter through Laughter Yoga. It is bringing joy, playfulness and healing to many. As Dr. Madan Kataria, founder of Laughter Yoga, explains, laughter and the laughter inducing exercises help to lower blood pressure, increase the level of positive hormones and neuropeptides in the bloodstream, and help those battling depression and other illnesses1. Make laughter part of each day.

Breathe – The power of the healing breath

Pause for a breath. Breathe deeply. Breathing is essential to life. Proper breathing is restorative and curative. It can calm the mind and help cure the body. The breath is a “harmonizer of mind and body.”2  Breathing is necessary to sustain life but it is amazing how many people don’t breathe properly. In fact, about 1/3 of people don’t breathe effectively enough to sustain normal health3. Happiness, fear, apprehension, nervousness, pain and disease all affect the way we breathe. Our positive emotions and good health can lead to proper and non-restrictive breathing or our more negative emotions and bad health can lead to improper breathing where we unconsciously hold or interrupt our own breathing. Improper breathing can reduce the immune system and leave us vulnerable to disease. Improper breathing can lead to pulmonary problems, such as asthma and lung disorders, cardiovascular disorders, mood disorders and immune deficiencies. Proper breathing allows us to regulate heart rate, blood pressure, circulation and digestion by continuously changing the rhythm and depth of our breath. We can increase our likelihood of proper breathing by doing breathing exercises including observing or focusing in on the healing breathe and how it makes you feel, breathing in through your nose versus your mouth, and deeply breathing out and expelling air before breathing in (which works the intercostal muscles by squeezing the extra and “older” air out of your lungs). When more air is moved out, you can automatically breathe in more air4. When you breathe properly, you feel better, you move better and you can even look better. Try to breathe properly and effectively to ensure good health and wellbeing.


Part 2: Mental Health/Emotional Health and Wellbeing

Hope – Share your story

Be a beacon of light and hope for yourself and others. As a survivor you can provide hope to others by providing your story and sharing your experiences. As Grace Cirocco shares in her book, Take the Step and The Bridge Will Be There, “… our lives are stories and by expressing our stories, we heal…The stories that make up our lives comprise our identity, our history, our individuality. Stories are the language of the heart.” Share your story and be a beacon of hope to others.

Mediation/Visualization – Imagine the healing

Meditation heals and as such, it is one of the most documented complementary approaches. It is one of many meditative practises which include meditation, yoga, quigong and tai chi. These practises increase relaxation, reduce stress, anxiety and depression5. Meditation can reduce pulse rate, improve skin and even delay the aging process. The practise of meditation also improves sleeping patterns, reduces and even eliminates anger, mood swings, grief, embarrassment and low self-esteem. Aside from physical benefits, meditation also has many spiritual benefits as it can connect you to a higher being and to your higher self6. I use meditation on a daily basis to control my own physical pain as well as to give me an “emotional” boost to carry me through each day. Visualization and meditation help to eliminate pain as both can alter our mental states: how we perceive pain and how we can control it. Our body is amazing and we are built to control a certain level of pain. We perceive pain in not one but three areas of our body. Pain arises from the interaction of three systems: the peripheral systems at the ends of nerves, a gate control system in the spinal cord, and an action system that engages the muscles to move away from pain. Meditation and visualization can help to relax and soothe each of these systems. While the brain does not feel the actual pain, it does receive messages of pain and is also able to send out messages and signals of pain control including “morphine like substances”7. These substances and other neurochemicals are released when we are more relaxed or in a state of peace or relaxation as can be created by meditation or visualization.


Part 3: Social Health and Wellbeing

Support – Get into the group thing

Join a support group- either on-line or in person. Support groups are a great way for people to connect and share personal experiences and listen to shared experiences of others dealing with similar health issues. Listening is very important for both the person speaking as well as the audience. According Rebecca Z. Shafir in to the Zen of Listening: Mindful Communication In the Age of Distraction, good feelings are created when a person gets to share his story or tell his views without the threat of judgement or advice, even if his listener is not fully listening. Self-esteem and respect grows between the speaker and the audience8. This is especially important to a group whose members may feel voiceless or less respected due to disability or illness. Likewise, listening is a healthy activity for the audience. Studies show that when we listen, our heart rate goes up, oxygen consumption is reduced and blood pressure decreases. The human bonding and contact established in a support group is vitally important. A good support group can provide people the opportunity to be heard, feel accepted and feel valued. Support groups are essential for many people at all points of their medical journey and those facing other challenges as well.

Communicate – Don’t leave family and friends in the dark

Don’t keep friends and family in the dark concerning your health or any difficulties in your life. Be honest with people concerning your strengths and limitations. You don’t have to share every detail of your life but, give people enough information so that they know what to do and how to support you during difficult times. You may want to hold information back to protect a friend or relative however, people feel much more respected when they know that you are being honest with them and are bringing them into your confidence. Holding people at arm’s length is not always the best approach. In the long run, this can lead to even more hurt feelings.


About the Author - Ingrid Exner

I am a brain tumour survivor and I have lived with hydrocephalus since having my brain tumour removed over forty years ago. It has taken me many years to get accustomed to hearing those words and an equal amount of time to understand the pride that you should feel in being able to say those words.

I wrote “From Surviving to Thriving: In Words and Images” to initially help a friend who had been diagnosed with a brain tumour and is living well with hydrocephalus - just like me. The tips that I write for this book are my tips that I use every day in order to not only survive with my various medical conditions but also to thrive. For me, part of this healing journey has included nature photography, like the image of the inukshuk I captured, which I find helps calm me and induce a relaxation response.


Article References

1 M. Kataria, M.D., Laugh For No Reason (Mumbai: Madhuri International, 2011), 76-90.

2 Andrew Weil, M.D., Spontaneous Healing (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), 132.

3 D.S. Khalsa, M.D. and Cameron Stauth, Meditation As Medicine- Activate The Power of Your Natural Healing Force (Toronto: Pocket Books, 2001), 55.

4 Andrew Weil, M.D., Spontaneous Healing (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), 204-7.

5 G. Anderson, Cancer: 50 Essential Things To Do (New York: Penguin Group, 2009), 195.

6 7 S. Austen, Meditation For Everyday Living (New York: Barron’s Educational Series, 2002), 8.

8 R.Z. Shafir, MA., CCC, The Zen of Listening: Mindful Communication In The Age of Distraction (Illinois: Theosophical Publishing House, 2000), 11.


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