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Our mind has a substantial impact on our physical and emotional wellbeing, yet very few of us know how to work with our mind in a way that supports and improves our lives, especially when dealing with chronic illness.
All too often when we are faced with illness the mind unknowingly makes our situation worse. We get caught up in fearful thoughts of the future, regrets about past actions, or find ourselves mentally at war with our situation.
Unfortunately, these habits of mind can degrade our mental health, amplify the burden of our situation, and make physical symptoms worse.
Mindfulness meditation is a practice for lessening that amplifying effect and learning to live as well and happily as possible despite illness.
Studies show that mindfulness not only supports mental wellbeing and the ability to cope with adversity, but it also aids the body in long term recovery, supports healing – when possible - and over time can even slow the progression of chronic illness.
Learning how to switch off unnecessary worry, rumination, regrets, or resistance by returning your attention back to the present moment reduces stress and helps bring your system into balance.
Some practices, like acceptance, may sound counterintuitive. But by accepting your situation, you’re not feeding unhelpful mind states. And learning how to access calm and ease while staying kind and compassionate toward yourself - even while experiencing discomfort - can have a big impact.
Mindfulness meditation is a powerful supplement to – not a replacement for – traditional medical treatments.
When we are unwell it’s normal to feel anxious and concerned, however, being at mental war with our situation creates chronic psychological stress.
Fortunately, many of the problems associated with chronic stress seem to be reversible. In fact, studies show the biggest difference is directly related to how the mind makes sense of things and what we give attention to.
So, how does meditation help if you’re dealing with acute, chronic or severe illness?
Mindfulness meditation is a practice for dealing with your life situation with more ease, skill, and compassion, by learning how to anchor your awareness in the body and to develop a more peaceful mind.
While it’s natural to resist discomfort of any kind, resistance can settle in the body as tension. You might be feeling irritable about missing work, or fun activities, or feeling scared and preoccupied if your illness is serious. This can create stress and tension in your system and makes being unwell even harder to bear.
Using the body or the breath as a resting point for the attention anchors the mind in the present moment. When the mind is present for extended periods of time (during meditation), the mind tends to calm and settle, and energy draining worries and concerns about the past and future begin to have less influence. Our way of being with challenges like illness, improve.
Let’s explore some of the other ways that mindfulness meditation helps you to manage illness.
Systematic body scan meditation trains the body and mind to relax.
With each inhalation and exhalation, you repeatedly return your attention to observing your breathing while watching as thoughts float in and out of your mind. Over time it gets easier to let go of distracting thoughts that keep your mind buzzing.
Once the body is a little more relaxed you begin to slowly scan your body from the crown of your head down to the tips of your toes, systematically noticing and releasing tension in each body part.
Relaxing your body and mind, evokes the natural relaxation response, a deep physiological shift in the body that’s the opposite of the stress response.
When unnecessary over-activation of the stress response is reduced our system can re-regulate.
When we are not mindful it is extremely easy for the mind to lapse into negative thinking, worry and rumination. Meditation is a great remedy for counterbalancing these unhelpful mind states.
Learning how to open your awareness to your surroundings through mindfully connecting with the senses - hearing, smell, and sight - is a wonderful practice for finding more peace of mind and ease.
It reminds you that you can guide your awareness to open out to the environment instead of feeling trapped inside an uncomfortable body, or in unpleasant thoughts and feelings from experiencing discomfort.
Practising sending yourself kind thoughts and warm friendly attention to those parts of your body you might feel are letting you down, is known as Metta or loving-kindness meditation.
It’s like telling your body, ‘hey I’m here for you.’ And even if you experience frustration or impatience, you can practice bringing gentleness and kindness to the underlying emotions which often arise when you’re unwell.
Emotions can amplify the burden of illness.
Meditation is not trying to change anything but giving us the tools to notice and accept our emotions without getting swept away in the story the mind might be coming up with.
You stand back and just let thoughts and emotions come and go. In doing so you learn to change your relationship to an emotion; to see the emotion and gently and warmly embrace and accept it like you would a friend who is suffering, scared or overwhelmed.
Studies show that kindness and compassion practices have a profoundly positive impact on our wellbeing. If you’d like to try an introductory loving-kindness practice for dealing with illness, click here.
You may be feeling restless, worried, resentful, or even angry about your condition. These feelings usually come with a story in the mind of not wanting this experience, of judging and rejecting it, of living in the past that has already gone or a future that has not yet come.
Meditation trains us to notice how our way of being with can illness cause unease and tension in the body and mind. We see it and ask ourselves “does it make the situation better or worse?” Learning how to work with our mind and body requires that we cultivate curiosity about what is going on.
While it’s natural to resist discomfort of any kind, getting into an adversarial, resistant or controlling relationship with your situation settles in the body as tension, and unwittingly turns on the stress response which tends to make your experience worse.
Meditation helps you to identify and let go of unnecessary resistance and reactivity by learning how to skilfully accept what is happening to you.
You cannot win your argument with reality.
It is what it is, and if you can accept it, you can reduce your mental and emotional pain. It doesn’t mean liking the experience, or that it is easy! It’s just accepting that this is how it is in this moment, and every moment is different.
Meditation also helps us to manage any challenges we may have in response to needing assistance, by making room for any difficult emotions associated with needing and accepting love and assistance when we’re unwell.
Mindfulness can be practised and listened to while doing any activity – like eating, washing the dishes, cleaning, or having a bath.
Whenever you find the mind wandering, just come back to what you’re doing now, and breathe, notice your senses. This helps you create a gentler relationship with your day, without feeling like you’re just waiting to get better!
When we are unwell, we can sometimes go about errands and tasks in a robotic manner. Whether it’s folding your clothes, making your bed, eating or showering. It can be so routine that you forget to really notice it moment by moment. Being on autopilot gives the mind permission and scope to wander into worry and rumination which is not so helpful.
It’s easy to get caught up in the feelings, sensations and reactions to your condition and to stop paying real attention to the things that you have to do throughout the day. These everyday activities can be soothing when you pay attention.
Being mindful even in the small routine things can help you stay connected with yourself and your experience. It can give you a way to be more intimate with the quality of everyday life and wake up to the simple pleasures which are easily missed when you’re trapped in a world of thinking.
Living more mindfully makes your experience feel more spacious instead of claustrophobic. Instead of being carried into the future with your thoughts of worry or speculation, you can decide to stay in the present as you do any activity.
To try out a mindfulness of activity meditation click here.
Often when we experience discomfort or are unwell, we find ourselves preoccupied by the sense that something is missing or wishing things could be better. This tendency to focus on what’s missing tenses up the body and we become lost in the “not enough” mind. I am not enough; this is not enough. We are left feeling a constant sense of lack and dissatisfaction.
To change this habit of wishing or wanting to be somewhere else, we can learn to let ourselves recall and be moved by what is good in our lives.
Meditating on feeling grateful brings you towards feeling a sense of connection, gratitude, and love. And shifting your attention to all the good things in your life can be deeply healing.
The Awakened Mind Illness and Mindfulness program includes a range of meditations for making dealing with illness easier.
Mindfulness is learning how to cultivate a different way of coping and relating to life as it unfolds, which can dramatically improve our physical and emotional symptoms. It makes it easier to focus our attention on the situation in front of us and to respond to it more effectively.
The bonus Neurosync™ audio tracks in this program can be used whenever you just want to relax. While they don’t teach you important life skills like the meditations, the advanced sound technology can help with relaxing the muscles and increasing blood flow to the organs which can make treatments and medications more effective.
Remember, there are no guarantees about how things will work out. Mindfulness is about giving yourself the best possible chance of shifting the probabilities a certain way, by bringing balance back to the system and helping nature with healing if healing is possible.