Wednesday, December 10, 2014


If you are an adult living in the modern world, you know that stress is a bitch. It’s also an essential, inescapable part of life. Often it is our response to and perception of situations that determines our stress levels. You may think you’ve mastered strategies to tackle stress in life, and then chronic illness throws you a curve ball.

Illness causes an immense amount of chaos in your life. It is an unpredictable beast. The key is managing the stress this causes because stress will aggravate illness. Most patients with Dysautonomia and other illnesses are sensitive to medications so anxiety treatment often needs to be in a non-pill form. We need other strategies to manage the anxiety that comes with illness.

When I got ill and left grad school, I started seeing a therapist who happened to have a background in mindfulness. I am incredibly thankful that our paths crossed and she introduced mindfulness practice into my life. Mindfulness is useful for anyone and especially for those who are ill.

I promise I am not trying to drop some New Age-y nonsense on you or start selling you crystals or ask you to join a yoga cult. This is a simple technique that has given me much relief so I wanted to share it. Mindfulness essentially means training the mind to concentrate on the present by focusing on the breath and the physical body and surroundings. Psychology Today defines it as “a state of active, open attention on the present. When you're mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.” You do not have to be a Buddhist or ascribe to any religion to enjoy the benefits of this practice, but mindfulness and faith can go hand in hand if that works for you. Prayer is essentially a mindfulness practice.

There are many avenues to achieve mindfulness, and it is a practice I have been working on the last few years. Meditation is probably the most obvious form of mindfulness but it isn’t the only form. If you’ve never meditated before, it might be strange to try it for the first time, but it’s easier than you think. There are quite a few free apps you can download to get started. Headspace is a popular one. There’s also Calm.  You can also find videos on Youtube. Search for “guided meditation” or “guided visualization” and see if you find one that sounds beneficial, such as this one. You can also find meditation music on Youtube as well.

What I like about meditation is you can make it your own, such as connecting it to your faith or finding a regimen that works for you. My therapist wanted me to meditate every morning and evening but that can be a tall order so my goal is to meditate at least once a day. I like morning or just before bed the best. The most difficult part may be carving out some time for yourself without interruption.

My routine goes like this: I usually start sitting with legs crossed but I have too much weakness and neck pain to sit for too long so I eventually lie down. I do a 20 count of deep breaths, speaking one word in my head when I exhale, such as “rest” or “calm.” Sometimes I focus on a visualization such as lying on a beach and imagining the tide washing over me and washing away the tension and anxiety with it. Often, I imagine floating among the stars.  I think about the energy of the world around me and the mysteries of the universe. It helps me escape my physical body and feel connected to something larger, especially as often feel isolated from humanity. It’s a chance to feel free of that pesky mind-body dualism. I might speak a mantra in my head such as “I trust my body. I feel strong. I feel connected.” I try to do a minimum of 15 minutes but a half hour would be ideal.

There are also books to help you find your own mindfulness practice. A great place to start is Toni Bernhard’s How To Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired GuideFor the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers. She offers suggestions specifically designed for the chronically ill and she even has POTS as well. I particularly like her suggestions about learning how to be compassionate for yourself and your struggling body and learning how to find joy in others’ joy.

You don’t have to meditate to practice mindfulness. Simple activities we do every day such as cleaning, cooking, reading, writing, drawing, playing music are ultimately mindfulness tasks. They are an opportunity to live in the present moment without thinking about the past or future and just focus on a task or creativity. When I am able to play music and I’m in the middle of a song, I feel truly free. I can let go of the physical symptoms and just ride the wave of the music until the end.

When you realize that these activities are opportunities for mindfulness, you can really embrace them and enjoy those moments, even if they seem mundane. If you can do these tasks despite pain or fatigue, it may be an opportunity to focus on the simple intricacies of the routine and let go of focusing on the physical symptoms for awhile.

I find myself, especially during the difficult times of when I am bedridden or lying ill on my bathroom floor, obsessing about illness and my symptoms. It’s difficult to not feel like the world is crumbling from under me in those moments. Even when I’m just sitting on my couch I can feel my mind start spiraling into anxiety about the future. These are opportunities to take a step back and focus on the present moment. Focus on the breath and stay calm. Mindfulness can train you to do this, but it definitely takes practice. It can alter mental patterns and destructive thinking. 

Sometimes I do the 20 breath count in these moments. If I’m having a difficulty sleeping, I’ll get out of bed and do the 20 count. It stops my brain from spiraling out of control and contributing to physical symptoms. When I was teaching, I tried to do the 20 count between classes just give my brain and body a rest.

Now that I’m not working, I’m trying to get back to meditation and a determined mindfulness practice again. Meditation actually had a benefit I didn’t expect. It gives me boosts of creativity. After meditation, I often feel like I was just given a cosmic hug. 

I hope that this is helpful to you and that you can introduce mindfulness into your life as well. We all know the brutality illness can cause in our lives but it can also open new possibilities and opportunities to know ourselves and feel gratitude for the world around us. Mindfulness could be an option to fulfill these positive aspects of illness.

Here are some related links that might be useful:

1 comment:

  1. Well said! I also try and do kinds of mindful practices, though I'm from perfect at them. But it sure does help, even doing it inconsistently and badly ;)


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