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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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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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Engaging in Positive Self-Talk

Back in May, I wrote about the negative internal talk I experience. For a long time, it was the loudest voice in my head. We all engage in self-talk daily. All day; every day. The self-talk can be positive, or in my case, it can be detrimental. When it takes a negative turn, it brings our mood and motivation down. When we engage with positive self-talk, we embrace a loving relationship with ourselves.

It’s hard to shift our negative self-talk into a more positive one: when we are used to the talk being a particular way, especially when it’s become background noise, it’s hard to know how to change the internal narrative. What this requires is a mindful practice, self-compassion, and gratitude for the moments we’re able to shift to a positive dialogue.

It’s going to take time and practice. But we can do it because we have the desire to have a healthier inner life.

Shifting Negative Self-Talk to Positive

As John Gary Bishop wrote in Unf*ck Yourself, engaging in positive self-talk isn’t going to be last stop on your self-improvement train. Rather, it’s positive actions that get you to improve, not thoughts. But, I would argue that shifting away from self-defeating talk helps motivate us into those positive actions.

If you walk around believing you can’t do something, chances are you won’t take the risk to try it, or set yourself for failure from the beginning. You fall into the trap of confirmation bias: I believe I can’t do this, I don’t succeed as I thought; therefore, I am right. I can’t do this.

So how do we shift away from the negative self-talk? One way is to be aware that it is happening. My negative self-talk was such background noise that I don’t think I was fully aware of it happening at the moment. I had gotten so used to it buzzing in the back of my mind that when something confirmed the negative noise, I would say, “of course, this happens. Of course, I messed up.”

When we take a more mindful approach to our internal dialogue, the thoughts that operated in the background come to the front of our mind, loud and clear. I sat for thirty seconds, engaging in mindful practice when no fewer than five separate negative thoughts popped into my consciousness that I wasn’t even aware of. I was able to address each of them with loving kindness so they would quiet down before the next set popped up.

Now that I knew these negative thoughts existed, I could hear them more clearly when they popped up again during non-mindful moments. I could address them directly again until they eventually quieted down altogether.

By having a heightened awareness of the thoughts and what they are trying to say, we can find the best ways to counter them. The quieter the negative thoughts become, the louder the loving thoughts get. Those, we want to encourage as much as possible.

The Advantage to Openness

When you grow more open to yourself, you become more open to your deepest thoughts and feelings about yourself. You create a more realistic image of yourself, and hopefully can see yourself as others see you.

Which can be a terrifying thought in of itself, but if we want to change, we want to have the self-awareness to know what needs to change. By being open to your inner life, you can see how it affects your external life on an unconscious level.

You may surprise yourself with what you learn. That leads me to an important question.

What do you Want to Learn about Yourself?

It’s an easy enough question, but we don’t often ask it because we might not be willing or ready for the answer. But the answer is important if you want to change your internal narrative from negative to positive.

I asked this question of myself back in January, and I did not like the answer: I am an echoist. This means I struggle to express my own opinions, I don’t want to be a burden to others, and I have an intense fear of coming across as selfish. I had a weak sense of identity, which leads me to engage in toxic relationships because that’s what I thought I deserved.

It was a blow to my ego, but it was so enlightening. It placed my internal dialogue, life decisions, and behavior in relationships into proper perspective. I was finally able to see myself as others saw me.

Because I answered this question and worked with all the associated implications of that answer, I finally addressed the negative dialogue in my head. I could start nurturing my own identity, which is confident and independent and does not accept the negative internal talk.

I unraveled one of the final pieces of my personal puzzle. Healing could begin.

So, what is it that you want to learn about yourself?

You may not arrive at an answer right away, it will take time as you peel back the layers, but you might be able to find a temporary solution until another one pops up. The answer will be different for each of us, and what you do with that answer will be different too.

Engaging in Positive Self-Talk

For the rest of this week, take time to address your negative dialogue and flip it into positive self-talk. See what it feels like when you engage in the positivity. Do you feel better? Do you feel calmer?

Hopefully, you’ll arrive at a positive place which can help you make healthier decisions for yourself and push you forward in your wellness journey.


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Featured photo credit: Noah Buscher on Unsplash


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How to Love Myself

I would love to wave a magic wand over everyone and say, “Poof! You now love yourself and embrace all that you are.” But I know that’s not how it works. It’s not something that happens instantaneously or over even a short period. My personal journey to self-love began two years ago when I learned that my brain lesions were gone and I had a new lease on my health. I had the opportunity to make important life changes, and part of that was figuring out how to love myself.

This blog is my chronicle towards self-love and self-acceptance, even if I haven’t overtly admitted to it.

It isn’t an easy journey, and I am still in the beginning stages of self-acceptance. It’s been easier to focus on my exercising, food, and self-compassion than admitting to what I love about myself. I will spend the rest of my life contending with myself over whether or not I am worthy of my own love.

I think it’s like any other relationship we have: loving someone takes work. We have to constantly reaffirm that love, engage with it, and nurture it. Our love is no different.

Love, Don’t Just Like

We can all find things we like about ourselves, but can we find something we love? If you did the exercise from Monday, listing of five things you love about yourself, how many of them are really just “likes?” Be honest.

Sometimes it’s easier to approach ourselves from a slight distance like implies less depth of feeling over love, and that is a fine place to start. But we do want to work towards turning some of those “likes” into “loves.”

Any new relationship is based on “likes” that develop into something more, so this is very similar to that. Look over some of the qualities you like about yourself, are any of them worthy of your attention? You may appreciate how you handle your exacerbations, but you may not celebrate that perseverance to the degree it deserves.

Take a moment and see if a particular quality is worthy of an internal appreciation upgrade. Embrace those qualities and start to look at them with love. Embrace what makes you unique and amazing. You are worthy of your love.

The Science of Loving Yourself

Science backs up the importance of loving yourself. When we focus on our negative qualities, it impacts our relationships, health, and ability to overcome adversity. When we engage in self-appreciation, we give ourselves a chance to cope with stress and any mood/anxiety disorders we might have.

While this won’t cure our depression, it may help you lessen symptoms or get you to a space where you can ask for help.

I found that when I take a stand to care more about myself, that I am able to back away from negative relationships. My drive to be healthy is greater, and I find that I self-assess my abilities as a mother to be higher.

When we engage in self-appreciation, we are more open to making healthy medical decisions. This isn’t necessarily about eating right or exercising, we are more open to fighting for what we need to manage our chronic illness.

Speaking of chronic illness…

Chronic Illness and Loving Yourself

When you have a chronic illness, you’re stuck with it. Until they find a cure for our particular illness, we are biding our time managing the best we can with what we have.

Chronic illness is an obstacle in our wellness journeys. I’ve said this before on the blog: it’s so hard to want to get well when our bodies betray us. It’s hard to love ourselves if we view our bodies flawed beyond repair. Asking someone with a chronic illness to take the steps towards self-love seems unreasonable, but it’s not.

I will be honest, if someone who didn’t have a chronic illness tried to tell me that, I would probably give them the biggest eye roll possible. Even today. Why? Because it’s usually said to make themselves feel better, not me.

Because we cannot change whether or not we have a chronic illness, there is a level of self-acceptance that must happen. When we fight against the illness, via ignoring it or caving completely to it, we signal to ourselves that we are not worth caring for and we signal to the illness that it wins. Patients with negative attitudes, tend to fare worse than patients who are positive with their healthcare approach.

It’s easy to get lost in our illnesses. It’s part of the grieving process, which is perfectly healthy on its own. But it’s a process, which means there needs to be forward movement in our journey, not stalling for an unhealthy length of time. We sometimes forget that we aren’t alone in this world, even though it often feels like it.

We have to fight to love ourselves and keep on fighting despite our health setbacks, lest the illness wins. Chronic illness takes so much away from us, leaves us feeling helpless and worthless, but why let it? Why allow it to take more from us? We have to give it permission to leave us feeling unloved, and we can revoke that permission at any time.

How to Love Myself

So how do we begin loving ourselves? Very slowly, as mentioned in Monday’s post. We’ve been slowly building up to this point throughout the year:

Find ways to start incorporating self-appreciation in your daily life. Get a workable morning routine that allows you to feel good about yourself. Include affirmations if that works. Find some way to exercise to boost the feel-good hormones.

Tell yourself that you are worth fighting for.


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Featured photo credit: Michelle Melton


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Coping with Negative Thoughts

Last month on the blog, I opened up about my negative internal narrative and its impact on my life since childhood. If you are managing a chronic illness, chances are you’ve been plagued with moments of self-doubt and negative thinking. Understand this: having negative thoughts is normal, so there is no shame to be associated with them. But they can be overwhelming and therefore necessary to find a way to cope with them.

Like Gary John Bishop says in Unf*ck Yourself, negative thinking doesn’t necessarily prevent you from taking action. Plenty of successful people are also self-destructive. But those of us negative thoughts impact, it can obstruct any personal progress to the point where we give up.

I slumped into periods of deep depression exacerbated by my negative thoughts. I am not always in control of these thoughts, but I had moments where I could see where I could alter my thinking and actively chose not to do it.

The dark thoughts fueled my resistance to change because I repeated the following excuse: I can’t work on making changes right now because I don’t feel good. When I feel better, I’ll make the necessary internal changes. Needless to say, it doesn’t work that way. If I wanted to feel better, I had to choose to feel better. The choice could include wellness changes or go to a therapist.

Please note: what follows is my experience and what worked for me. I am sharing my experience in case it provides help or comfort for you. Please do not expect the same results. You may find this does not work, it kinda works, or surpasses my results. Everyone is unique and in a different starting place.

Additional note: if you are dealing with depression, not everyone can halt negative thoughts. This post is not for those moments. If you are experiencing dark thoughts out of your control, please seek help. You are loved and wanted.

Soothing the Negativity

I found that when I personify my negative thoughts, I can cope with them. Often these thoughts sound and behave like a needy toddler, so I imagine that’s what they are. Toddlers are persistent, repetitive, demanding, loud, and sometimes won’t take “no” for an answer.

As are these thoughts.

When literally dealing with an out-of-control toddler, I find the most success when I speak in a calm and soothing voice. Reacting sharply, or in an emotionally charged tone, can exacerbate an already tense situation. When I take a moment to stop, figure out what is bothering Jai, and speak to him calmly, the episode ends a lot faster.

My “toddler” thoughts respond similarly. When I react to negative thoughts about myself, what I am doing, or memories in a harsh way; these thoughts fester and continue on for hours or days at a time.

But when I respond to these thoughts by taking a moment to figure out what is bothering me, speaking to myself calmly and lovingly, my own episode ends faster. It may still pop up throughout the day, but I continue to talk in kind words.

It’s funny. I am incapable of speaking kindly to myself when I don’t personify my thoughts as a toddler. I get in this mode of, “I am an adult, so why can’t my thoughts behave like an adult?” I look at the thoughts as though a toddler is living in my head, and suddenly, I am sensitive to my needs.

Having negative thoughts isn’t shameful. It’s healthy, so please do not feel like you have to drive them out of your head as soon as they pop in. Take a moment to validate them. Validation does not mean you agree with these thoughts, you are merely acknowledging their existence and what they are trying to say, no matter how badly they are saying it

You are giving your thoughts what they need: a moment to be heard.

Coping with Negative Thoughts

Try to figure out the “age” of your negative thoughts. While I am treating my thoughts like a toddler, the age of my thoughts is probably closer to twelve or thirteen. That’s when I can point to personal stunting of my emotional growth.

Pre-teens/teenagers often behave like toddlers, so it isn’t unreasonable to use a similar approach. I think it has everything to do with me raising a toddler, so I am already in a particular mindset.

Your thoughts may behave like a toddler, an older child, a teenager, or a young adult, depending on your age. Try to self-assess the behavior and tone of your thoughts to get an idea of the age, and then figure out how you would speak to someone within that age range.

Speaking to your negative voice like it’s a young child may not be as effective as talking to it like it’s an older teenager. It will take some time to get it right, but you’ll figure out what works best for you.

When you speak, try to do and keep the following in mind:

  • Validate the feelings. Validate the thoughts you are thinking about. Reflect them back: “I hear that you are upset about what you said earlier today.”
  • Speak as you wish an adult spoke to you at that particular age. You may not have a positive example in your life, so this will take some work. But imagine how you wished adults treated you at that stage. Rather than screaming and spanking you; you might have wanted, they sat down and talked you through the source of your outburst.
  • Provide an outlet for the feelings in a healthy way. Sometimes we still have to physical our thoughts to get them out of our head. Consider taking up an exercise or hobby that will allow you to channel that extra emotional energy bothering you.
  • Look for a way to manage similar thoughts in the future. Consider ways to address the thoughts you might have in the future, so you are prepared. You won’t be able to account for all possibilities, but you might know what might trigger a thought in the future.
  • Commit to loving this hurt inner voice, despite what it says. This is one of the more difficult steps. Committing to love this voice that works so hard to hurt you. It is asking for your love, but going about it in a very ineffective way. Listen to it as a desire to be loved, and you may find it helps soothe it more and more in the future

As stated above, taking these steps may not be as useful for you, but it might give you an idea of how to break your negative thought cycle and help cope with those negative internal thoughts.


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