A Blog For Those Affected By Environmental And Invisible Illnesses Written By Fellow Survivors
Mindfulness for Chronic Illness: Think Less, Do More!
As someone who has suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) for over two decades from the young age of 11 I have come to see that we need to use every tool at our disposal to help us manage chronic illness and live life to its fullest. Starting around 10 years ago a began flirting with various forms of meditation and eventually settled into regular practice of a form of meditative practice that involves the repetitive chanting of a mantra (word or phrase). Whether the mantra itself is important is up for debate as it seems to me at least that the rhythm of the chanting is the important aspect, leading the brain into a state of syncronisation, focus, and relaxation.
What I know for certain is that my practise of mantra meditation has empowered me to build and maintain The Environmental Illness Resource website, obtain a bachelor's degree in nutritional medicine, and enjoy a social life I had lost years earlier. I still have my limitations due to chronic fatigue syndrome but I am certain without my meditation practice I would not have achieved what I have. Meditation not only elevates mood, energy levels and motivation, it has the potential to change our entire outlook on life and the way we experience it...at least that has been my experience.
I want to use this blog today to discuss a different form of meditation however. Recent sessions with an excellent psychotherapist have highlighted the fact that I like to distract myself from my own thoughts using anything such things as music and tv - this may seem counter-intuitive to some but this helps me to focus and concentrate. I also prefer noise when I am in bed trying to sleep, whether it be the constant whirr of a fan or the random noise of my neighbour in the apartment above me going about his business. These are things are noticed and techniques I developed from a young age and that have worked well for me but they are only masking the actual issue - that I feel uncomfortable in my own skin and with only my own thoughts and emotions for company. Mindfulness is a form of meditation which teaches us to allow thoughts and emotions to come and go but to just let them pass by rather than getting caught up in them. It trains us to become more comfortable with ourselves.
Now I should point out that I am not saying ME/CFS or any other illnesses covered on this website are "all in the mind" but I think most people would admit that they have fears, insecurities and other personality traits that often prevent them from making the most of their lives within the physical limitations of their illness. I am happy to admit this myself. Nobody is perfect after all! Mindfulness practise is just a tool we can use to help us put our minds and our energy to better use than worrying about things (that are often small and inconsequential anyway).
According to the excellent book The Mindful Manifesto: "Mindfulness is an integrative, mind-body approach to life that helps people to relate effectively to experiences. It involves paying attention to thoughts, feelings and body sensations in a way that can increase our awareness and compassion, help us manage difficult experiences, and make wise choices."
Mindfulness has been shown to help people manage a range of health conditions, including ME/CFS, fibromyalgia and chronic pain, syndromes, anxiety, leep problems, and even HIV and cancer. It has been shown to improve immune system response, speed healing and induce brain changes associated with increased positive mood.
Basic mindfulness practise usually involves sitting or laying in a comfortable position and focusing your mind or on your breathing. Feeling the cool air enterting your nose, the expansion of your diaphragm, its subsequent relaxation, and the expulsion of warm air as your breathe out. Thoughts may come and go but the key is not to "interact" with them but to let them drift away as easily as they arise. Focusing on the breath has the effect of relaxing mind and body and fostering a sense of well-being. With regular the practice the aim is to tain the mind to remain in this state for longer and longer periods. With the mind freed of worries and other superfluous thoughts it allows us to use our precious energy reserves for more productive activities. It can also reduce pain as the mind is less focused on it - again allowing for greater activity.
By practising mindfulness myself I am trying to step outside my comfort zone of masking my thoughts and emotions with external noise and instead directly challenge my fears and insecurities that I have held since I was a child. I am having good results so far and firmly believe this is another tool I can use to manage my health concerns and live a fuller and happier life. Even after 20 years I have never come to terms with what I have lost through suffering with ME/CFS and so inner peace has escaped me. Everything else I have done, including mantra meditation, my have helped me to be more functional despite my illness but did nothing to make me truly happy. I believe mindfulness has a real chance of changing this and am having good results so far. I hope you too will look into it and give it a shot.
The Mindful Manifesto by Dr. Jonty Heaversedge & Ed Halliwell