mindfulness-and-chronic-illness

Practicing Mindfulness with a Chronic Illness

I’ve mentioned mindfulness often in passing on the blog throughout the year, but I haven’t devoted a full post to it. For August, I want to celebrate all the small victories we have in our lives and one way to recognize them is through the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is an easy practice for someone with a chronic illness. Mainly because we are mindful without realizing it: daily we observe our bodies, how the body reacts (or does not react), where our moods are, and what we need to do to make the day manageable.

If you’ve engaged in mindfulness practice without realizing it, let’s take some time to focus it towards our emotional health. You’ll find it will help you manage your mental and physical health along the way, which complements any care your healthcare team recommends.

What is Mindfulness?

What do you think of when someone says “let’s practice mindfulness”?

You might envision a person in yoga class, or a Buddhist monk sitting cross-legged with their eyes close. Yes, these are classic examples of mindfulness, but it’s not limited to a form of Eastern philosophy. If you hold to a particular set of beliefs, you might be afraid that practicing mindfulness comes into conflict with them. I can assure you that mindfulness does not conflict, especially if you strip it down to the very basics.

If you’ve sat in a quiet moment, speaking to your Higher Power, that’s mindfulness. If you’ve ever visited a therapist and they wanted you to focus on the moment, that’s mindfulness. If you sit back and observe the world moving around you with no other thoughts than the present, that’s mindfulness.

Mindfulness, very simply, is inhabiting the current space you are in mentally, emotionally, and physically. It does not need to be attached to yoga or meditation. It is observing the moment.

What are you doing right now? Are you reading this post on a phone/tablet or your computer? Are you sitting down or standing? Are you fully engaged with this post or are you multi-tasking? Sit for a moment and think about what is going on right now while you read this.

Mindfulness observes the physical actions you take, the thoughts you think, and the emotions you feel. Often we get frustrated because we might try to sit for a session in mindfulness and our minds wander; something itches; or if you are in the middle of an exacerbation, you focus on that.

All of those “frustrations” are happening at the moment, and therefore they are a part of it. Ultimately, there is no right way to practice mindfulness. If you are not focusing on the past or the future, you are being mindful of your moment.

The goal in mindfulness practice is to keep ourselves grounded in our current moments as much as possible. It is meant to release us from any stress we feel about a future project or the shame of a previous social encounter. We often get caught up in things we cannot control (the future) and things we cannot change (our past), that we forget the current moment.

Nothing goes away when we engage in our mindful practice, but we do get a chance to give our mind a bit of a vacation and re-prioritize. It helps us appreciate what we do have, rather than what we don’t.

Mindfulness and the Chronic Illness

I spoke about the importance of gratitude in last Monday’s post. If you are struggling to get into a space of gratitude, mindfulness will help you get there. When we practice mindfulness, we are unconsciously appreciating the current moment. When we re-wire our brains to engage in gratitude more often, we can help manage our chronic illnesses in a healthy manner.

Mindfulness opens us to looking at the moments when we aren’t experiencing an exacerbation or feeling pain. Sometimes we forget the moments when our illness is leaving us alone, and mindfulness refocuses us to appreciate those moments.

Even when experiencing an exacerbation or pain, we can use mindfulness to refocus the pain or discomfort of the exacerbation. It’s not a cure-all, nor will it make the exacerbation/pain go away, but it can help manage both. Many of our exacerbations are brought on by stress, or made worse by it, and mindfulness is a great stress-reducer.

Even if the practice of mindfulness proves to be nothing but a placebo, the placebo effect is genuine , and mindfulness practice is one of those scenarios of “if it works, or doesn’t cause any harm, why not do it anyway?” It may be helping you better manage your pain, it may have you appreciating each day a little more, or it may help you get into space to begin your own wellness journey.

Silver Linings Abound

Through mindfulness can we take a few moments to recognize life’s silver linings.

While dealing with a chronic illness, we must collect all the bright spots we have in our lives. If we focus too much on the illness itself, it can crush our resolve, our ability not to allow it to control us. We experience pain, physical and emotional, so much more when we let our illness overwhelm us.

However, when we are mindful of the present moment, we can see that not everything is grim. Our thoughts may drift to the negative, but if we refocus on the current moment: the current lack of exacerbation, the current lack of pain, the current lack of drama or stress; do we see that we might be in the middle of a bright spot.

We may be more receptive to trying something new in our lives if we become more present. That may be trying a new medication, taking on a healthy endeavor, or allowing ourselves to begin the process of grieving that might be previously repressed.

It’s a chance for us to no longer view ourselves as victims of our illness, but our illness as just one more thing to overcome in our lives. To be clear, our illness can victimize us by taking things away, but we do not have to act like victims. There is a healthy way to cope with our darker emotions and thoughts relating to the illness, but being unwilling to make healthy changes is not the way to go.

Mindfulness can show us the way that we can make changes. We can be healthy. We can control how we respond to our chronic illness.


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Featured photo credit: Canva

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Book Review: Declutter Your Mind

After finishing Unf*ck Yourself, I did what many readers do and look for more books to read. I find that similar books help commit what I want to learn. One of the books that popped up was S.J. Scott & Barrie Davenport’s book Declutter Your Mind. I figured I would give it a go, considering July is all about mindfulness and loving ourselves. One thing often stands in the way of my own journey of love, and that’s the clutter that takes up space in my mind.

This book seemed like the perfect follow up to Bishop’s book since I still had some clutter holding me back. I wanted to get some new techniques, ideas, and perspectives to removing the clutter that prevents me from fully loving myself.


Note: I was not compensated to review this book, I am sharing my thoughts as it might help readers on their journeys. All links are unaffiliated and I receive no monetary benefit by providing them.


Book Information

Title: Declutter Your Mind: How to Stop Worrying, Relieve Anxiety, and Eliminate Negative Thinking 
Author: S.J. Scott & Barrie Davenport
Date Published: 2016
Publisher:  CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Pages: 156
Genre: Non-Fiction, Self-Help

Goodreads Link
Amazon US Link


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Gratitude

Looking for an easy way to hack your brain? Consider practicing gratitude on a daily basis. It’s rather simple, but sometimes hard to do. When we practice gratitude, we are stating to ourselves and those around us that we are worthwhile and we appreciate our life. Gratitude is so important to our overall well being, it really does re-wire your brain to focus more on the positive and make healthier choices.

Gratitude can help you manage your stress, your illness, and how you operate in the world on a daily basis.

In the month of November, I try to focus on gratitude in some capacity. I decided to do it a few months early this year because gratitude should be a year-round thing. Doing it for a month out of the year, a week, or a day, is not enough to make meaningful changes.

Gratitude should come as a daily practice if we want to truly rewire our brains to be healthier.

The Science of Gratitude

Often we look for quick and easy solutions for our problems. Living in an age of instant gratification dulls our ability to be patient, so finding a solution to a long-term problem is difficult sometimes. With that in mind, gratitude is one of those easy to do exercises that offers a short-term response with long-term ramifications.

Have you found yourself feel better after doing something nice and unexpected for someone? Or when you express your appreciation for someone without cause? It might be a temporary good feeling, but science backs up that these moments, when added up, can re-wire your brain to be more receptive to positive experiences.

But when you are dealing with a chronic illness, sometimes the last thing you want to do is express gratitude for yourself or the world around you. After all, your body’s betrayed you. Often all we can think about is what we lack, such as our health, and not what we have.

When we take the time to incorporate more gratitude in our lives, despite our illness, we rewire our brains to spend less time on the negative aspects. Focusing on the positive brings us into a space to make healthier decisions for ourselves and can lower our overall stress.

And stress is something we strive to avoid in chronic illnesses.

Creating Space

We must be present in our lives, chronic illness or not. We choose to take a chance to do what needs to be done, or we choose to let life happen to us. If you struggle, like I have, with incorporating gratitude, consider creating a five-minute space to practice one instance of gratitude each day. Often the recommendation in the morning to set the tone for the rest of the day, but if that’s not possible, do whatever time works for you.

I learned this lesson recently: there’s an expectation to do things at a specific time because “that’s what’s right,” but that may not work for you. If your moment of gratitude is in the middle of the day or before going to bed, then do it then. When it happens does not matter. Just that you are doing it.

Try to set the alarm at your preset time if you often forget to do something, and commit to a short practice of gratitude for five minutes. Five minutes out of all your day is but a drop and passes by rather quickly.

Practicing Gratitude

Find the practice that works best for you, there are so many ways to practice gratitude. Try until you find something that works, don’t settle on what you think you’re supposed to do. Here are some suggestions to get you started.

  1. Buy a gratitude journal and follow the prompts
  2. Think of something silly about yourself that you love
  3. Do a random act of kindness for a stranger with no expectations of a acknowledgment/validation (i.e. don’t post about it on social media)
  4. Compliment a stranger on something you genuinely like about them
  5. Create and maintain a list of things you appreciate everyday. Add a new one during your gratitude time
  6. Find a silver lining in a difficult situation
  7. Relish a challenge or adversarial situation, rather than taking on a victim role
  8. If you are able to, volunteer your time
  9. Surround yourself with people who are grateful and make you feel good about yourself
  10. Find a gratitude rock or object that you can keep near yourself at all times to remind you of being grateful

The Importance of Gratitude

We don’t have to wait until November to practice gratitude in our daily lives. If you want to work towards rewiring brain towards a more positive outlook, just start with gratitude. It’s still going to take time to undo what might be years of negative thinking, but it gets you into the head space you need to be in to be receptive to change.

That’s the best space to be in: open to making positive changes in your life if you’ve previously struggled with it. Gratitude truly is one of the easiest and quickest ways to get into a positive space for yourself. I am already finding that I let things go a lot quicker than I used to, and appreciate the moments I have more.


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Featured photo credit: Canva


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Learning through Painful Experiences

On the Adult Swim show, Rick and Morty, there’s a minor character named Mr. Meseeks. In a moment of extremely dark humor, something the show is famous for, Mr. Meseeks admits that “existence is pain.” When you live with a chronic illness, there’s a lot of truth to that phrase: life can be literally and figuratively painful at times. But there’s something we should know: we can learn through the painful experiences.

While the Mr. Meseeks character can “poof” away after fulfilling its purpose, we cannot leave. We are stuck trying to find a healthy way to manage our physical and emotional pain.

What Pain Teaches

Pain comes in many forms.

It can be physical, mental, or emotion. Often, we find it’s a combination of these three: if I am in physical pain, I might feel it emotionally as well. One leads into the other in a domino effect.

Physical Pain

When pain is in a physical form, it can teach us what we are capable of handling. If it’s an expected pain, one that we can mentally prepare ourselves for: an outpatient procedure, exercise, or giving birth, it reminds us that we are strong.

Often, after these moments pass, we recognize we’ve become stronger because of the pain/discomfort endured. Scar tissue heals tougher, muscles build up, or we have a beautiful little one to show for the struggle. We endure, we grow stronger, and we have something positive to show for it.

When the pain is unexpected, such as an undiagnosed chronic illness, it can be discouraging. Even if we expect the pain due to our illness, it’s often coupled with the uncertainty as to when it will end. When we willingly put ourselves through a physically painful experience, we have an expectation of knowing it will eventually end.

Exacerbations and chronic pain do not adhere to such a timeline.

But this pain can still teach us what we are capable of enduring, even in the moments we feel like we’re barely tolerating it.

Emotional & Mental Pain

Emotional pain is harder to grasp. It’s so nebulous that when we think we’ve caught it, rooted it out, and dealt with it; it pops up in some other form in another part of our life. Emotional pain is a constant game of “whack-a-mole.”

The scars are harder to see when we’ve endured emotional abuse. Anything can cause our emotional pain to grow out of control. Even the slightest look from a stranger can turn our positive mood into a dark space. It might take hours to days before we get back into a balanced state.

Mental pain can be equally difficult to deal with. It may be out of our control, requiring chemical intervention. Please continue to follow your healthcare professionals recommendations if you require chemical intervention to manage your mental pain.

These types of pain also provide important lessons: emotional pain teaches compassion, while mental pain teaches us to honor and nurture our fragile nature in a healthy way.

I found that these three forms of pain, physical, emotional, and mental, all teach me one thing: I can endure, and I grow into a stronger person because of it. Without pain to push me, I stay within my comfort zone and do not develop into the person I have the potential of becoming.

You can’t Stop the Pain…

As much as we’d like to, there’s no quick fix to handle our pain. We can abuse medication or find other unhealthy ways to escape it, but that isn’t handling the pain as much as it’s kicking the can down the road. This form of avoidance can deepen the pain, making it more difficult to manage, which turns into a negative cycle.

Please note: I am not referring to using prescribed pain medication as directed by an ethical healthcare professional. I am referring to the intentional abuse of prescriptions or illegal drugs as a means of escaping physical, emotional, and mental pain. If you, or someone you know, is abusing medication, please seek help now. You can break the negative cycle.

Pain will always be a part of our lives. We cannot escape it; we cannot avoid it. When we try to run from it, like “checking out” or procrastinating, it can exacerbate the pain, specifically mental, and make it feel more overwhelming. It’s often a struggle to confront it, which is what we must do if we are to move forward.

If you cannot stop the pain, what can you do?

…But you don’t have to Accept it

Exactly that.

You do not have to accept the pain. You have to endure it, yes, because it will always be present. But you don’t have to give into it and let it “win.” Rather, you can find ways to manage it so you can put it in proper perspective.

For physical pain, you can learn meditative techniques to manage the pain. You can speak with a healthcare professional about a healthy way to chemically treat the pain or referral to physical therapy. The pain may be telling you to slow down because you’ve done too much, so take some time to rest. You can look at it as a challenge to test your abilities to endure and flip it into something positive.

For the emotional and mental pain, find a competent therapist or qualified accountability partner to help you work through it. Figure out why you are in this pain, what triggers it, and how you can healthfully manage it. Use healthy distraction techniques to keep you moving in a forward direction and minimize getting “stuck” in one place.

Learn to work with, through, and around the pain so it no longer holds you back. It is just one more hurdle to overcome in life, with or without a chronic illness.

Learning Through Painful Experiences

Pain gets a bad rap for being negative. To be fair, it can be negative most of the time. But remember the planned pain, like with exercise? That pain can bring on positive growth. It teaches use we are strong by making us stronger.

Try to view the unplanned pain from illness or injury in a similar manner. It is teaching us something about ourselves: what we can do with it, how we can handle it, and possibly how our lives are better because of it. There are plenty of people out there that lose part of themselves, enduring pain from trauma, to come back stronger than before.

Pain teaches us a lot about ourselves, we just have to be willing to listen to what it has to say.


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Featured photo credit: Imani Clovis on Unsplash


can-illness-be-a-positive

Illness as a Positive, Part II

In November 2018, I surprised myself when I wrote about how I was grateful for my MS diagnosis. Before writing it, I thought about the benefits of my diagnosis, in light of all limitations. I was healthier, mentally and physically because of it. I made and achieved personal goals since my teenage years. Can an illness be a positive? I asked myself.

As I wrote, I found the answer was “yes.”

This isn’t a case of the dreaded “inspiration porn,” that plagues people with chronic illness. I am not saying that chronic illness is some test that brings enlightenment to its sufferers meant to inspire others.

I was talking to Ash a few weeks ago about how my MS isn’t “sexy” enough to be inspirational. I’ve temporarily lost leg function before, but never to the extremes that other people with MS experience. There’s nothing inspirational about my diagnosis and disease-management story.

What I am saying is that, for me, getting ill was the wake-up call I waited for all my life. The call rang in the background, but I kept ignoring it. Getting the “all clear” from my neurologist on my brain lesions shook me out of complacency. I reached my “rock bottom” and needed to work towards the person I dreamed of becoming for so long.

I absolutely have my moments where my MS is a negative thing. I hate my brain fog, when objects slip out of my hands, or I struggle to get out of bed due to fatigue. There are days where I wish I could trade places with someone who isn’t chronically ill just to feel “normal.” I will admit: this daydream occurs at least once a week.

Taking a mental tally of the benefits my illness brought me versus the negative, I’ve found that the positive outweighs the negative. This won’t be the case for everyone, my MS was never that bad, to begin with, but making the decision to be positive is one form of disease management.

How? It gives me a more realistic view of the severity of my illness. Before, I had a hopeless view of my future. I waited until I progressed to Secondary-Progressive. I now see that the MS does not limit me as much as I thought it did.

Deepening Appreciation

My perspective on my illness is evolving. Rather than re-publish the post in November with some edits, I wanted a separate post to reflect on everything I’ve learned about myself and my MS in the last eight months. Life is a classroom, and I’ve learned a lot more about myself since November.

In childhood, I was taught adversity was a good thing: it’s what shapes us into stronger adults. It’s one of the reasons why I chose the lotus for MS Awareness on the blog. Through the mud does the beautiful lotus flower bloom: a perfect metaphor for what it’s like to live with a chronic illness.

We sit in our dark moments, in the middle of an exacerbation, unable to see the internal growth taking place. When the exacerbation is over, we blossom into a more resilient person, wiser from the experience.

I just passed my second anniversary since my last major exacerbation, but I still live with a fear that I will wake up with blindness in one eye, or unable to lift my leg to walk.

I am more aware of a lot of things in life.

I’ve become more mindful of my time, choosing to live in the moment more, rather than focusing on the future fear of an exacerbation. I appreciate each day I get exacerbation-free. I am aware of my aging, and what my elder years might look like with MS. I recognize my mortality more, not because MS might kill me, but it might take my ability to function away from me, so I have to wait for years to die in a hospital bed.

This is unlikely to be my situation, but this disease is so unpredictable that I cannot rule it out entirely.

That is something the MS taught me: the unpredictability of it all. Everything. Each time I go out to exercise, I play with Jai, I interact with Ash, or love on my cats; each of these moments is so precious because I do not know what I will wake up to in the morning. If I am lucky, MS won’t get me, but MS did make me aware that anything can. MS taught me that every day is a gift and you never know when it is your time to go.

I know that’s morbid, but it’s why I developed a more positive outlook. If we are given a brief chance to look back at our lives at the end, will I leave feeling positive about my life overall, or negative?

The Importance of a Positive Outlook

I am speaking from a place of acceptance with my illness, so it’s easy to maintain a positive outlook. We are not all there yet, as we work through the stages of grief post-diagnosis.

Once you reach a space of acceptance, try to look at life more positively. Look not at the series of moments of what you cannot do, but at the moments of what you can. You may be surprised that you can do a lot more than expected. Now re-examine the things you think you can’t do and see how you can adapt to make things happen.

I never thought I could be a runner, before MS and especially after my diagnosis. I did not think I could be a mother. I never anticipated getting into a positive space with my more adversarial acquaintances.

I never thought I could improve as a person, especially after my diagnosis.

And yet, here I am. If I had the opportunity to go back ten years to interact with myself, past me would not recognize present me both physically and in personality. I am a completely different person.

It started when I stopped looking at what I couldn’t do and adapted myself, so I could “do.” Embracing a more positive outlook, I started to say “yes,” to more opportunities to grow. I don’t know if that would have happened without my MS.

The Grace of Chronic Illness

Having a chronic illness is awful. This is never in dispute.

There are difficult days where we can’t get anything done. Where we are so miserable, physically, and emotionally, that we just wish it could be over. But the grace of the chronic illness is this: it teaches us compassion towards ourselves and to others in similar situations. We can share our knowledge and experiences with others who are struggling to navigate their chronic illness.

Another reason why we should view ourselves as lotus flowers: the lotus flower represents compassion and courage. We are reborn in our illness and able to cope in ways we previously wouldn’t expect.

The illness teaches us how much we can endure, and we are capable of enduring a lot. You might discover one day that a friend experiences the same pain you do, but cannot manage it without external help. Meanwhile, it’s a pain you experience daily but manage through mindfulness and perseverance.

It’s not about comparing pain or experiences, but acknowledging that our perspectives and thresholds differ from person-to-person. It’s also about acknowledging what you are capable of doing.

Who you are and who you can be.

It would be nice to have a cure for our illnesses in our lifetime. But that may not be on the horizon any time soon. Waiting for a cure and rehabilitation to change our lives is something we may not have the luxury in doing. Shifting our perspective towards our illness, no longer looking at it as an entirely negative force in our life, can help get us on the path of self-discovery and self-appreciation.

The grace of our illness teaches us to appreciate our lives as they are now and the value of life itself.


Like this post? Make sure to follow me on your favorite social media platform and show some love by sharing it. Links found below.

Featured photo credit: Michelle Melton