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.


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: Canva

Advertisements

mindfulness-as-a-coping-tool

Mindfulness as a Coping Tool

You are probably asking yourself, how do I handle my self-doubt in a healthy and meaningful way? There must be an easy way to address self-doubt once and for all. Unfortunately, no. Remember, self-doubt can be healthy, provided it’s not preventing you from something you are capable of doing. While there is no way to removed self-doubt entirely, there are ways to cope with it, so it is less bothersome. Mindfulness works as a coping tool when it comes to our self-doubt. It can quiet our fears enough that we can take a step into the unknown.

I love mindfulness because I find it to be one of the more successful therapy techniques I’ve used on myself, especially with my MS. It helps me drop all the baggage I have in the past and about the future to focus on the moment I am “in.”

How Mindfulness Impacts our Lives

Mindfulness is about finding ways to be present at the very moment we inhabit. Rather than focusing on a nebulous future or an unchangeable past, we focus only on the now.

For a person such as myself, mindfulness is difficult to practice. My mind pulls in multiple directions at any given time. I am the sort of person who cannot just sit and watch a TV show or movie (at home) and not be on my phone working on something else. I live for multi-tasking. If I am sitting “idle,” I could be doing something productive with that time even if it’s catching up on the news or latest social media trend.

When I sit down to practice mindfulness, I confront all the thoughts I’ve pushed aside throughout the day. Something I said three days ago, why haven’t I started that task that’s due tomorrow? Focusing solely on the moment feels impossible sometimes. But it does not need to be a long, drawn-out meditative task that we are led to believe (unless you want it to be).

That’s where I would always get hung up on the practice. I had to sit for five to ten minutes, focusing on the moment. An exercise such as that is useful, but untenable if you need a quick mindfulness check while sitting in traffic.

Think of mindfulness as putting temporary blinders on. When your doubts get so overwhelming, take a few seconds to breathe, and push out all thoughts of your past concerns and future worries out of your mind. Remove the distractions preventing you from taking the steps you know you want to make and realize only the current moment matters.

If you are starting something new, or feeling overwhelmed by your chronic illness, being mindful will help you gain the clarity that comes from being singularly focused. It allows you the chance to take life one step at a time so you can catch your breath and say, “I can do this.”

Mindfulness as a Coping Tool

Mindfulness is an ideal tool to combat self-doubt because you have to live in the moment. Most of our doubt stems from previous experiences informing current concerns, or future worries preventing us from taking a significant leap.

Sitting within the moment, rejects past baggage or future concerns. As soon as we bring up a previous failure, we are no longer in the current moment. Or when we focus on a potential roadblock in the future, we are out of the moment.

Mindfulness creates a blank slate for us to work and build on. We have no room for insecurities or restrictions at the moment. Logistics come after the mindfulness exercise is over. If you want to walk a 5k and MS makes walking challenging, mindfulness allows us the chance to say, “I can do it, despite my difficulties.” Then we work backward from that goal to figure out how we can achieve it.

The more I live within the moment, the less I can focus on what I can’t do. I am not a grasshopper in these moments; I still keep my eye on future concerns and work hard on my time-management. But when I am focused on the task of achieving something important to me and only concentrate on it, I don’t have time to think about my doubts.

When self-doubt comes creeping in, I tell the doubt that I don’t have the mental energy to entertain it. Often, that’s enough to stop it altogether.

Self-Doubt, Chronic Illness, and Mindfulness

The exercise of mindfulness is all well and good; you may be thinking to yourself. But what about my illness? Most of my doubt stems from my illness. My illness prevents me from that skydiving adventure I wanted to take since childhood. Or, I would love to start my own business, but I don’t have the energy to begin the planning process, let alone run a business.

There may be limitations your illness places on you, but have you taken the opportunity to find alternatives or workarounds? Or has your self-doubt gone only as far as stopping you from considering anything?

For myself, I allowed my MS and self-doubt stop me from even considering an alternative life path. I assumed I would wait for the inevitable, my MS getting so bad that I would be a burden on my family. I would never teach; I would never start a family; I wouldn’t make it past forty before my body broke down.

The moment I pushed my self-doubt aside when Ash and I decided to start a family, was the moment I started allowing myself to make alternative plans from the ones I had since childhood. My teaching evolved into this blog, and I am interested to hear what my GP has to say about my overall health. I know my neurologist is hugely impressed with my progress.

Your journey will not look like mine, but it may take you in a similar direction to the one you envisioned for yourself. You may decide to work towards that skydiving dream regardless of your illness. In the process of preparing for it, you may find a useful alternative that gives you the same freedom you were looking for in the first dream.

Or you may not officially start a brick-and-mortar business, but able to sustain freelance work in the field of your choice.

You need to take a moment, focus on where you are right now in life and illness, and decide what you are capable of doing right now , rather than what you may not be capable of doing down the road. The answer and result may surprise you. Hopefully, it will be like my answer: better than I expected.


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: Canva