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If you suffer from a chronic illness, you’ve probably had at least one doctor or friend who has suggested activities that promote mindfulness – whether that’s yoga, meditation, tai chi or something similar. But when you’re suffering from serious symptoms, it can be difficult to see how these suggestions can actually help you feel better. So here’s a breakdown of how practising mindfulness can support you on your healing journey.
The main focus of mindfulness is to stay present and be fully in the moment. To get started, you should try to clear your mind of any worries (past or future) and ruminating thoughts, and concentrate solely on what you’re experiencing right in that moment. Take several deep breaths and focus on how your body feels as you take these conscious breaths. A huge part of being mindful is tuning into your five senses. Paying attention to what you’re hearing, seeing, touching, smelling or tasting can instantly bring you back into the present (even if your thoughts were wandering off in another direction). Using your senses also has the ability to make you feel more grounded and balanced. Being mindful requires you to pay close attention to what’s happening in your body. Try to fully evaluate everything you’re feeling (even if it’s something unpleasant, like pain or discomfort) so that you can see what’s happening in your body right then. You can even just ask yourself thoughtful questions to discover how you’re feeling (Is my breathing slow or fast? Do my muscles feel tense or relaxed? Is my heart racing or at a normal rate?). It’s easy to feel mired down in whatever symptoms you’re having with your illness, so practising mindfulness can help you escape some of the worries or pain you might be experiencing.
Being mindful can also help in these crucial ways:
Being mindful can help you physiologically
More and more research is being conducted on the benefits of practising mindfulness regularly. Turns out, being mindful can actually help you improve your health. One study of people with chronic heart disease showed that mindfulness had positive effects on both blood pressure and body mass index (which can be affected by many chronic illnesses). Additionally, brain imaging of people who practise mindfulness has shown alterations in the brain’s structure, leading to an increase in body awareness. For some people, this elevated awareness can actually change their body’s relationship with pain, possibly resulting in an overall reduction of pain symptoms. Mindfulness activities, such as meditation, have also been shown to improve cognitive functions in the brain, including visuospatial processing, memory and executive functioning.
Being mindful can help you better handle stress
There are so many stressful elements of living with a chronic illness. So anything to reduce this stress can be a lifesaver. Being mindful (taking those deep breaths and staying present) can lessen the effects of stress because you’re more able to logically evaluate situations without being overwhelmed by your emotions. Having the ability to take a pause in stressful events can help you prevent overreactions or stop you from making unwise decisions. Additionally, since your focus will be better, you’ll be more able to handle stress than you might otherwise. There’s science to back this up as well. Studies have shown that mindfulness/stress reduction methods can reduce activity in your amygdala – which is how your stress response gets switched on.
Being mindful can help lessen symptoms of anxiety and depression
Individuals with mood disorders can also benefit from mindfulness. Lots of research has shown that after fairly short trials (just two months) of meditation or mindfulness activity, people experienced lowered levels of anxiety and depression. Becoming more in tune with the present and shifting focus away from both the past and future worries can greatly benefit someone who is feeling depressed or anxious, along with handling the other symptoms of their chronic illness.
There are many different ways you can practise mindfulness. This is helpful because one way might work better for you than for someone else. One way to start is to set aside some time every day to work on being mindful. Even as little as five to ten minutes a day can help you start to feel more centred and grounded (and less focused on your chronic illness symptoms). Some people find it helpful to set a timer on their phone so they won’t forget to spend time practising mindfulness. As you experience some of the positive effects, you’ll likely want to increase the time you spend on it every day. Although you can be mindful anywhere, it can be helpful to pick a particular place for you to go to begin your practice. This can be a quiet room in your home, a spot in your garden or a nearby park. Places that don’t have a lot of activity but that still offer some outside stimulus (trees blowing in the wind, birds chirping, etc.) can be great locations for self-reflection and centring. The best part is that even if you can’t get to your special spot, you can still practise your mindfulness anywhere (in line for the train, at a doctor’s office, etc.)!
If you think you might need additional guidance in your mindfulness practice, there are lots of resources online for helpful tips and suggestions for getting the most out of being mindful. Plus, in some areas in the world, you can find mindfulness therapists who can assist you in getting the most out of your practice. You can also explore taking yoga or tai chi classes, as they both use the same tenets of mindfulness in their practice. It doesn’t matter what modality works best for you. Just invest in being mindful and staying in the present, and you’ll quickly find that you’re better able to cope with your chronic illness.