Inside: Read below to learn how mindfulness can improve your physical health and ways you can be mindful when you’re suffering from chronic illness.
A lot of things are out of your control when you have a chronic illness.
One day you’re gallivanting through life, singing show tunes and drinking your favorite sugary latte from Starbucks. The sun’s out, birds are chirping and you can’t remember why you ever hated life.
The next day you realize that the sugary latte triggered a massive flareup and now you’ve got a hot date with your bed for the next two weeks.
Below, we’ll explore the ways you can be mindful while living with chronic illness. But first, let’s dig into what mindfulness really means.
How to Be Mindful When You’re Suffering from Chronic Illness
What does it mean to be mindful?
Essentially, mindfulness is the moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment. (“Without judgment” being the keywords there.)
To be mindful is to be intentionally engaged in the present moment. You’re not thinking about the future or ruminating on the past — you are here in the present, accepting the way things are now.
And by accepting the way things are in this moment, you are doing so through a nurturing lens. Your thoughts are not connected to any preconceived ideas. You’re simply aware of everything existing in this single moment.
What is an example of being mindful?
The most obvious example of mindfulness is through meditation. However, mindfulness is a state of intention, rather than action. You can be mindful when you wake up in the morning and take an extra breath before starting your day. Simply sitting in a moment of stillness with your thoughts is being mindful.
OK, so why is this important?
What are the positive effects of mindfulness?
Mindfulness is not only good for your mental health, but for your physical health, as well. There aren’t a ton of treatments available for chronic illnesses, especially autoimmune diseases, so it’s important to take every measure possible to improve your health. Especially, something that’s free and only takes 15 minutes a day!
Here are a few clinical studies showing the positive effects of mindfulness:
- A new study indicates that people who meditated over an eight-week period had a striking change in the expression of 172 genes that regulate inflammation, circadian rhythms and glucose metabolism. And that, in turn, was linked to a meaningful decrease in their blood pressure.
- In one study, people with pre-hypertension were randomly assigned to augment their drug treatment with either a course in mindfulness meditation or a program that taught progressive muscle relaxation. Those who learned mindfulness had significantly greater reductions in their systolic and diastolic blood pressure than those who learned progressive muscle relaxation, suggesting that mindfulness could help people at risk for heart disease by bringing blood pressure down.
“Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.”Robert Wright, Author of Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment
- In several studies, mindfulness meditation appeared to increase levels of T-cells or T-cell activity in patients with HIV or breast cancer. This suggests that mindfulness could play a role in fighting cancer and other diseases that call upon immune cells. Indeed, in people suffering from cancer, mindfulness appears to improve a variety of biomarkers that might indicate progression of the disease.
Does mindfulness help with anxiety?
Honestly, mindfulness is one of the only things I’ve found to help with anxiety. Of course, prescription drugs would probably work well, too. (IDK, I haven’t tried.)
When I’m feeling a lot of anxiety, my routine goes something like this:
- The very first thing I’ll do is try deep breathing exercises.
- While I’m breathing, I’ll try to find where the anxiety is stemming from.
- I’ll label the anxiety as either physical or emotional. (This means identifying whether the anxiety was triggered from a physical response for an emotional one.)
- Once I’ve calmed down, I’ll either turn on calming meditation music or a Headspace guided meditation. Sometimes, I’ll pray or manifest.
- I usually dim the lights, light a candle or incense and sit in the same spot.
How to Be Mindful When You’re Suffering from Chronic Illness
1. Breathing Exercises
According to Very Well Mind, “Chest breathing causes an upset in the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the body resulting in increased heart rate, dizziness, muscle tension, and other physical sensations,” which may signal a stress response that contributes to anxiety and panic attacks.
One of the best things that you can do when you feel anxiety coming is a deep breathing exercise. Inhale through your nose for five seconds, breathing from within your diaphragm. Then, exhale through your mouth for a count of five seconds. Count each inhale and exhale, and if your mind starts to wander, bring your focus back to your breath.
2. Accept that Suffering is Natural
One of the best books that I’ve read for mindfulness is Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment by Robert Wright. In it, Wright discusses the concept of suffering. According to Buddhist philosophy, suffering is an inevitable and natural part of life. Accepting.
Accepting that sadness is a natural part of life and that things are constantly changing is a significant step in reaching fulfillment. Sometimes, when I’m feeling sorry for myself, I remember that suffering is inevitable and something that every human being will go through at some point. This helps me from feeling like my health is unfair.
3. Give the Benefit of the Doubt
Life is so much easier when you can give someone the benefit of the doubt. Rather than believing that someone did something to intentionally spite you, create an alternative motive in your head.
For instance, if your friend hasn’t reached out to you in a while and you feel like she’s being unsupportive, think about how she might be feeling. Maybe she’s busy with work or stressed and having marital problems?
Giving someone the benefit of the doubt for their actions or words takes you out of the victim mindset. You stop ruminating on negative thoughts and create a compassionate perspective that starts to become your default the more you use it.
4. Let Compassion Guide You
Don’t let emotional pain build up to where you can’t feel happiness for others. Happiness isn’t like a pizza. Just because someone has a slice, doesn’t mean that there’s not enough for you, too.
Leading with compassion toward others will help you create more positivity in your life, as well as garner more compassion for yourself. Oftentimes, we’re a lot harder on ourselves and we are on other people. Treat yourself with the same respect that you would treat your best friend, and try to find compassion for others with whom you don’t always agree.
5. Engage Your Senses
Creating a mindfulness ritual that engages your senses can help you get to a place of calm quicker. Much like the bedtime routine of a baby, lighting incense, turning on calming music and holding a crystal while meditating will help trigger your mind that it’s time to calm down.
You can also be mindful while drinking a daily cup of tea or gazing at your favorite piece of art. Whatever it is that helps you relax and disengage from your thoughts will work.
Final Thoughts on How to Be Mindful When You’re Suffering from Chronic Illness
Obviously, these tips for how to be mindful when you’re suffering from chronic illness don’t perfectly align with textbook meditation strategies. But, I also feel like mindfulness doesn’t have to be one-size-fits-all relaxation.
I encourage you to adapt the mindfulness techniques for your body. The techniques that work for someone with migraines will be different than those that have IBS. The ultimate goal when dealing with any chronic illness is to find what works for you and offers you relief from your symptoms.
What have you incorporated into your lifestyle to be more mindful? Tell me in the comments below!
Allie Schmidt is a rare disease advocate and disabled mom living with motor neuron disease. She founded Disability Dame in 2020 to provide tips to other moms living with disabilities and chronic illnesses.
In her spare time, you can find her traveling with her husband (she's been to 38 states and 16 countries!), watching reruns of Survivor, or tending to her near-constant sunburn from spending too much time outside. You can follow her adventures here.