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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The First Couple Days…Weeks…Months…


This is a conversation I wish someone gave me when I first received my diagnosis. While it is tailored specifically to MS, I hope some of the thoughts are universal enough for any difficult medical diagnosis.

CW: Discussion of suicide, self-harm, and depression within this post. If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal, please contact Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you are in crisis, text CrisisTextLine to connect with a crisis counselor. You are not alone.


After I got my MS diagnosis I went through a period of shock and relief. I was shocked that it was MS but relieved to finally have an answer. Ultimately, the shock overpowered the feelings of relief and I found that my emotions spiraled out of control.

I don’t remember the first couple days, I think I was numb from trying to process the information: it was like finding out a loved one had died. Every couple of minutes I’d get distracted enough to forget, but as soon as I turned my mind to it, my heart sank and it felt devastatingly fresh again.

The numbness I felt was me unable and unwilling to process the news. 

I was aware of MS since High School because my art teacher had it. I remember my mom telling me about MS, explaining why my teacher may seem fatigued or snappy towards the end of an afternoon class. I also remember sitting in the art room, watching my teacher gush about Cezanne and thinking two things to myself: one, “Oh god, I hope I never get MS;” and two, “it would be the end of my life if I ever got it.”

I was wrong on both thoughts. I may have MS, but my life isn’t over.

So You Have MS

Welcome to Club MS where no one wants membership. 

Right now you’re searching online for meaning and information. There is a lot of information out there and I understand that this post is going to add to the noise. I wrote a simplified post about MS, but I recommend checking out the NMSS for thorough information on the disease if you want specific medical details about MS.

I am not going to offer advice on how to cope with the news of the diagnosis, but provide insight into what I went through to normalize your experience to a certain extent. While working through a diagnosis is unique to each individual, there are certain aspects to the process that is universal. You are not alone in this journey.

There’s a good chance you will go through a range of emotions like I did. Hopefully, relief will be one of them because there is a sense of calm with finally having an answer to what is going on with your body. It makes what is intangible – tangible. What was presumed to be just in your head is now externally acknowledged by a medical professional.

These feelings of relief probably won’t comfort you past the first 48 hours or so. But it is something to keep in the back of your mind for later as you move through your coping process.

The next set of emotions may be frustration and betrayal.

I was frustrated that my body was attacking itself but equally betrayed by it. Here I was, at the end of my 20’s looking at a lifetime of disease; where Ash would have to take care of me if I progressed past a certain point; and I would be a physical, mental, and emotional drain to all of my loved ones.

As a younger person, the idea of having a disease or getting sick was something that happened to other people. I took what was presumed perfect health for granted. I remember thinking to myself: I lived my life relatively well, I was a good person, I did what I was supposed to, why is my body punishing me? What wrongs was I atoning for? This does not happen to good people.

I sank into a deep depression. I was completely lost about what I was facing, how I would face it, and how I would get through it. I felt completely selfish because I could only think about myself. I couldn’t and didn’t want to think about anyone else.

I went to a very dark place and stayed there for several months. There were moments where I was suicidal over the whole situation. If I killed myself, I would regain control of an out-of-control situation. More importantly, I would be able to remove myself from Ash’s life and no longer be a burden to him. The sooner I did it, the sooner he could move on and find a healthier partner.

I never acted on it, never made any serious plans. Instead, I pushed it down the road: if I start to be a burden for my loved ones – then I would do something about it.

I am not saying, nor am I recommending entertaining these thoughts, but by pushing the desire back it helped give me the clarity to healthfully resolve my thoughts on the matter and get to a point where suicide was no longer a viable option at any point in time.

It was around this point that I realized I was going through a form of grieving after getting the diagnosis. Grieving a medical diagnosis for yourself is, in fact, normal. It helped contextualize what I felt in the months after my diagnosis. It also helped me move through the stages more effectively because I now knew what I was experiencing was normal.

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