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Studies show that the mind and our mental health have a substantial impact on our physical and emotional wellbeing, yet very few of us know how to work with our minds in a way that supports and improves our lives, especially when dealing with chronic illness.
In fact, all too often when faced with illness or pain the mind unknowingly makes our situation worse. We get caught up in fearful thoughts about the future, regrets about the past, mentally argue with our situation and end up in a war with ourselves.
Unfortunately, these habits of mind can degrade our mental health and amplify the burden of chronic illness and even make physical symptoms worse.
Mindfulness is a practice for lessening that amplifying effect and learning to live as well and happily as possible despite chronic illness.
Studies show that mindfulness not only supports mental wellbeing and our ability to cope with adversity, but it also aids the body in long term recovery, supports healing where possible, and over time can even slow the progression of chronic illness.
Mindfulness helps you to positively shift possibilities.
If you’re reading this, you might have a chronic or severe illness like cancer, an auto-immune condition, heart disease etc. If you do, then you probably want to know what you can do to help yourself.
One of the most important things to understand when you are dealing with chronic illness is the mind-body relationship and the stress response.
To help explain that, imagine you are out walking and suddenly a big angry dog jumps out at you barking and gnashing its teeth! Your stress response immediately activates. A turbocharge button is pressed in your brain, and that turbocharge button is the amygdala.
The moment you perceive the threat, it fires and adrenaline and cortisol are pumped around your system for short-term activation (you either fight, flee or freeze). The stress response arms your defences, switches on your immune system, increases your heart rate and blood pressure, blood diverts away from the gut to the skin and muscles and you breath faster to get more oxygen onboard.
This is not an anxiety response. It's an activation response. For a short period of time, you are faster, stronger and have more endurance than usual.
Make no mistake, your stress response is incredibly helpful if you are eyeball to eyeball with an angry dog. It could be the difference between life and death.
Unfortunately, far more commonly when we activate that response, it's got nothing to do with what's happening in the present moment and everything to do with our imagination. We might be worrying about something happening in the future or dredging up old hurts from the past.
The body will respond to what the mind tells it to do. And if the mind is in a dream world catastrophizing, worrying, and ruminating, then the body translates that into the fight or flight response.
That's not a turbocharge of energy. We've got other names for it, like anxiety.
Without a way to manage the mind, that activation day in and day out causes wear and tear on a system. It’s like getting in your car and hammering it the whole time. If you drive your car like that, your mechanic will probably tell you, "Look, you're going to go through fuel and your repair bills will go up as parts wear out faster."
It's pretty much like that with a body. An unaware mind does the same thing to the body. It really does matter which thoughts we choose to give our attention to and how we learn to work with our emotions.
How well and efficiently your car runs depend a lot on the temperament of the driver. In many ways the mind is the driver of what happens in the body, for better or for worse.
When we are unwell it’s quite normal to feel anxious and concerned, however, over time if we don’t know how to work with our mind, catastrophizing, worrying, ruminating, and being at mental war with our situation just creates chronic psychological stress and makes our situation worse.
Studies show that uncontrolled psychological stress increases allostatic load, a medical term to describe the impact of chronic stress. High allostatic load results in things like high blood pressure, blood glucose and blood lipids – which put us more at risk for cardiovascular problems - like heart attacks and strokes.
The immune system is compromised and can’t protect us from the things it’s meant to, like fighting infections. Sometimes the immune system goes into overdrive and starts attacking the body, creating the very conditions for inflammatory and autoimmune diseases to flourish.
And it doesn’t stop there. Chronic stress makes the brain age faster and leaves us more susceptible to age-related illnesses like dementia.
The good news is that 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, how we manage our attention and what we give attention to.
Learning how to switch off unnecessary worry, rumination, regret, and resistance by coming back to the present moment, reduces stress and brings our system back into balance.
When we start to meditate, it’s like noticing our engine's been revving much faster than it needs to and allowing it to find its ideal state again.
Learning to come back to the present moment through practising mindfulness switches off the stress response when it's not required. When unnecessary over-activation of the stress response is reduced, allostatic load is reduced, and the immune system can re-regulate. That’s one of the things you’re doing when you practise mindfulness.
Through mindfulness we learn 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 more effectively.
To watch an animation on the impact of uncontrolled psychological stress and how being at war with our situation can make our symptoms worse click here.
Mindfulness is simple, but it’s not easy!
The Awakened Mind Illness and Mindfulness program is designed for people who want to deepen their understanding about the benefits of mindfulness and chronic illness. It includes animations which explain how mindfulness works, bespoke meditations for dealing with illness, and a series of podcasts with Dr Craig Hassed from Monash University.
We teamed up with Craig to ensure this program is as supportive and effective as possible. Craig is a medical doctor and a global thought leader on the application of mindfulness in important areas like medicine, illness, and chronic pain. He works with cancer groups, MS groups, and people with chronic illness.
The Awakened Mind Illness and Mindfulness program includes 10 high-quality meditations to help you be with your mind and body in challenging times.
We explore how these practices work and why meditating - as a springboard for living more mindfully - is such a powerful supplement to, not a replacement for, traditional medical treatments.
Some of the meditation practices in the Awakened Mind Illness and Mindfulness program encourage you to explore uncomfortable physical sensations and emotions associated with chronic illness.
While this may sound counterintuitive, accepting your situation, not feeding unhelpful mind states, and learning how to access calm and ease while being kind and compassionate with yourself (even while experiencing discomfort) can have a big impact.
The first 2 meditations are designed to help you deal with your life situation with more ease, skill, and compassion, by learning how to mindfully anchor your awareness in the body and to develop a more peaceful mind.
While it is 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. Meditations 3 and 4 help you to identify and let go of unnecessary resistance and reactivity by learning how to let go of unhelpful reactions to your life situation.
Meditations 5 and 6 encourage you to send yourself kind thoughts and to give some friendly warm attention to those parts of your body you might feel are letting you down. We do that by generating softness, kindness, and compassion toward ourselves.
Studies show that practicing kindness and compassion can have a profoundly positive impact on our wellbeing. To try out a meditation from the Awakened Mind Illness and Mindfulness program to shift your perspective from reaction and judgement to kindness and friendliness, click this link.
Meditations 7 and 8 help you settle your mind by skilfully accepting what is happening to you, while managing any challenges you may have in response to needing assistance.
And Meditations 9 and 10 explore how paying attention to everyday activities can be soothing and how shifting your attention to all the good things in your life can be deeply healing. Cultivating a sense of connection, gratitude and love can powerfully impact our experience of illness. Click here to try out a ‘gratitude’ meditation from the program.
As a bonus we have included a selection of Neurosync™ audio tracks in this program. The sophisticated brainwave entrainment technology in Neurosync™ can be profoundly supportive in challenging times.
These bonus tracks 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, while decreasing pain.
Remember, there are no guarantees of 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.
We offer these meditations and audio tracks with love and our utmost care and attention to detail. We sincerely hope you find the program useful.