Talk of mindfulness is everywhere. You have no doubt heard people recommending mindfulness as a method of coping with all sorts of health issues. While it’s no ‘quick fix’ or ‘miracle cure’, mindfulness truly can be extremely beneficial for those of us with chronic illness, and it has proven results!
The benefits of mindfulness for chronic illness
Mindfulness is all about being present in the moment, which promotes a sense of calm and relaxation. This alone can provide a feeling of comfort and relief when we’re going through a lot in our lives. This 2019 study defines the practice of mindfulness as: “intentionally observing the body and mind nonreactively while embracing the individual experience and accepting things as they are.”
When you live with chronic illness, you are often in a prolonged state of ‘fight or flight’, which means that your stress response is overworked. Your body and mind are not designed to handle this prolonged stress, which can understandably take its toll. Stress can contribute to chronic pain and other chronic symptoms. Thankfully mindfulness can markedly reduce stress levels, easing chronic symptoms and reducing the negative effects that come with being in a state of stress for so long.
It’s not only stress that mindfulness can help with: regular mindfulness practices can help us to gain greater control over our emotions and enable us to regulate them more effectively. This creates a more stable mood and an enhanced sense of wellbeing. This increased emotional regulation can even help with mental illness (such as anxiety and depression) which so often accompanies chronic illness.
Often the experience of living with chronic illness can create a sense of fear of doing something that may worsen your symptoms (which is completely understandable). This fear can lead to fear-fuelled avoidance, meaning we avoid certain activities in the hope we can avoid a ‘flare’. Unfortunately, this fear-fuelled avoidance can actually worsen symptoms over time. Mindfulness can help us to overcome those fears and deal with them in a calmer, more constructive way.
When you live with chronic illness, it can be incredibly hard to sleep. Often even when we do sleep, it’s non-restorative and restless, meaning we don’t feel much of the benefit. Mindfulness can help with more restful, regular sleep. Mindfulness can even help us to be more self-compassionate and build our confidence, as well as helping us to feel more motivated to self-manage our chronic illness.These are only a few of the benefits of mindfulness for chronic illness!
Making mindfulness practical:
Now that you know just how useful mindfulness can be, you might be wondering how to get started. It can be tough to know how to engage in mindfulness in a practical, realistic way. Let’s go through some tips to help you introduce mindfulness into your day to day life.
Figure out what type of mindfulness works for you. There are so many different types of mindfulness such as meditations, visualization and guided imagery, mindful movement, body scan meditations, progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) and more! This variety is great because it means that if you try a style of mindfulness and discover it’s not for you, it doesn’t mean mindfulness can’t work for you! Take your time to do some research and experiment until you find what feels best for you.
Start off with 5 minutes at a time. You don’t have to dedicate lots of time to mindfulness to feel the benefits, especially not when you’re just starting out. Starting out with 5 or 10 minutes at a time can be a sustainable way to introduce mindfulness. You don’t even have to do this every single day to gain the benefits (although if you can this would be fantastic)! 2 or 3 times a week would be a great way to start out. Being as consistent as possible is key. You don’t need any special equipment to get started. Find 5 minutes in a quiet space where you won’t be disturbed or distracted, and you’re ready to go.
Don’t worry about sitting in a specific position. You don’t have to sit with your legs crossed in an upright position for mindfulness to work. Don’t worry if that simply doesn’t work for you. There’s no magic pose that you have do to gain the benefits of mindfulness. Sit or lie down in any position that is comfortable for you.
If you feel pain or other symptoms, don’t overthink it. Let’s face it, it’s likely that while you’re sitting and trying to quiet your mind, you might experience pain or other symptoms of your chronic illness. That’s ok. Don’t worry! Mindfulness is about being present in the moment and engaging your senses. If you are experiencing a symptom, feel what you’re feeling as part of the present moment. Try not to overthink it or worry about it. That sounds easier said than done, but with practice it can get easier. Of course that might not always be possible. If you’re having a flare or a severe symptom, you might need to stop your mindfulness practice for the time being. That’s totally valid too! You can always try again later. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed or that you can’t practice mindfulness.
Find guided mindfulness resources. You don’t have to sit and meditate alone. There are plenty of guided mindfulness sessions online you can access (and many for free!) which will guide you through a meditation step by step. Some people find guided audio or video mindfulness sessions really helpful because it gives them a voice to focus on and clear, relaxing guidance to follow.
Consider mindfulness courses and mindfulness therapy. There are mindfulness courses you can engage in which can help guide you through learning mindfulness skills. You may be able to find some in your local area which you could attend in person, or you could find an online course or app. Mindfulness is often integrated into other types of therapy to treat chronic illness and mental health issues. You could ask your doctor, specialist or therapist if this is something you could involve in your sessions. Alternatively, you could seek a specific mindfulness therapist. If you do so, ensure they are properly qualified
Utilize mindfulness in bed to help you sleep. If you struggle to sleep, you could practice mindfulness a little while before you go to bed at night to get you in a relaxed mood. Another great way to utilize mindfulness to help you sleep is to listen to a guided mindfulness session in bed to help you drift off. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is really great for this purpose because it takes you through relaxing each area of the muscles in your body. This can ease muscle pain as well as encourage relaxation.
Make daily tasks mindful. We don’t always have the time or energy required to dedicate to setting aside specific time for mindfulness each day. However, as you learn the skills of mindfulness, you can make daily tasks mindful that you would be doing anyway. As we learn to pay attention to what is happening in the moment, (if our mind wanders we simply bring our attention back to the present) we are being mindful. Over time this can become a positive habit, and will feel less like a conscious effort. This study explains that, “repetitive attempts to increase state mindfulness leads to an incremental escalation of the general tendency to be mindful in a more automatic manner.”
An example of doing daily tasks mindfully could be eating a meal mindfully. Take your time to focus on how your food smells and looks before you eat it. As you taste it, take the time to really take notice of the flavours, the movement of your mouth and tongue, and the feeling of enjoyment you may experience. You could make taking a shower mindful. Pay attention to how the water feels on your skin. Take notice of the smells of your shower gel or soap. Think about what colours you can see (maybe the bottles in your shower or your sponges are a certain colour).
Be kind to and encourage yourself. If things don’t go to plan, for example if you can’t quiet your mind or you miss a week of your mindfulness practice, don’t be too hard on yourself! It doesn’t have to be perfect. Remember you’re learning a skill and that takes time. Encourage yourself and be kind to yourself. If you try all sorts of different mindfulness techniques and are just finding that it’s not for you, that’s completely valid too. There are plenty of other chronic illness management options that you can explore. It doesn’t mean you can’t try mindfulness again later down the line if you want to, so don’t worry!
Mindfulness is about you!
Fundamentally, mindfulness is about what works for you. If you can find ways to integrate mindfulness into your life, it can be well worth the effort and have wonderful benefits. Remember that there’s no specific ‘right way’ to practice mindfulness. It’s all about what works for you and your life.
About the Author:
Ann-Marie D’Arcy-Sharpe is 33 years old and works as a freelance writer and blogger. She lives with bipolar disorder, fibromyalgia and arthritis. She writes for Pathways Pain Relief, a chronic pain relief app and blog. The app is created by pain patients and backed by the latest pain science. The app uses mind body therapies to help pain patients achieve natural, long lasting pain relief.