Chronic Illness and…Mindfulness.


This is the first of what will be a series of blogs reviewing different meditation techniques which I have personally tried and tested (That probably doesn’t actually count for much, but it sounds good). Each will be an honest account of my experience, and the ways in which they may have the potential to benefit people living with Chronic Illness. The first in this series is reviewing Mindfulness.

With love and light xxx 

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me and willow bathers
According to Wikipedia (Which is a super reliable database and you should use it for all your uni essays), the English word ‘meditation’ is derived from the Latin meditate, which in turn is derived from a verb meditari, meaning “to think, contemplate, devise, ponder”. And that was the house that Jack built.

I am not a calm person. I do not lead a calm life. I do not have a calm family. In fact, the only calm facet of my life is a 32 kilo Golden Retriever that is potentially too obese to metabolise energy correctly. But I digress.

When Meditation was first suggested to me several years ago by a psychologist to help manage my Chronic Illness, I baulked. Not only did I baulk, but I was downright offended, and told her so. ‘So, what? You think all this shit is in my head?’. Note to the audience: Don’t ever ask a psychologist if they think the problem is in your head. It will not go well for you.

There was once a time that meditation was reserved for Yoda, Rafiki and the Hare Krishna’s alike. It was treated with the same degree of skepticism by the medical community as my Golden Retriever eyes a leafy green vegetable. Canine analogies aside, the sentiments were the same. ‘What the fuck is this shit?’. 

I was the greatest cynic of them all. Back during a time when I still believed the incurable to be curable, and that powdered pills would be the secret to shedding the first and cloaking myself in the latter, my Modus Operandi was evidence based medicine and cynicism.

Until one day I learnt that my genome could not be rewired, and this disease would only leave my body when I did.

That’s kind of a shitty deal to cop when you are twenty two years old. And I had no choice but to run with it. Around this time, I had begun to reach my own conclusions that while traditional medicine kept me alive, it did little for my quality of life. I saw little merit in having the first without the latter. I was no longer looking for a miracle, and I was not searching for a cure. I didn’t even want a magical little tablet anymore (Although I admittedly still read each study in which scientists have managed to give a mouse Marfan Syndrome. This is how I imagine they would look)

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I just wanted a better quality of life. I do not claim for meditation and hypnosis to be a cure. It may help you, or it may not. But here is an honest review the different techniques that I have tried. If you decide to try some of them, great! Decide not to? Great! We can talk about dogs or something instead.

Mindfulness

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Wanna know what’s fun? Spending 8 years trying to distract yourself from severe chronic pain and discomfort. And then one day just randomly making yourself be aware of every single sensation.

It hit me like a 32 golden retriever running into my head at full force.

Mindfulness is a form of meditation in which you are aware of what is happening for you right now, non judgementally. Wanna throw your guts up? That’s okay. Just feel it. Feel like you’ve been hit by a 32 kilo goldie? That’s cool. Just be aware of that too. Feeling anxious? Let it happen. And so it goes.

The concept of mindfulness is bizarre for most of us in a Western Society, where we are rarely present and in tune with what is happening for us right in this moment. If we are aware, we typically try to escape it, or to judge it. We have thoughts such as ‘This pain is terrible’ or ‘I shouldn’t be feeling this way’. Consequently, mindfulness is a foreign concept, as well as a confronting one. It can be frightening and uncomfortable, particularly if you have a Chronic Illness. But it can also be incredibly freeing. Finally, after 8 years of trying to escape what I was feeling, I started just letting it happen. What I felt was what I felt, nothing more and nothing less. And it was not until I began practicing mindfulness that I began to appreciate just how exhausting it is to be constantly running (okay metaphorically. We all know I can’t run) away from my experience.

Mindfulness takes practice, and that alone is enough to make most people run for it. Unless there is an English Rafiki to guide you through it.

andy puddecombe

Andy Puddicombe (Yes, that’s a real name. I checked) is the brain child of the Headspace App, described as the ‘Gym membership for the mind’. It’s free, but you do need to pay for unlimited access and additional features. Andy is a former Buddhist Monk who wanted to make Mindfulness accessible for everyone. And so the Headspace app was born.

Comprising of ten separate ten minute guided meditations, the Headspace App is an education in developing the tools to practice mindfulness. Andy’s voice is calm, measured, and not remotely creepy, which is a rare thing in the mindfulness audio tool world. At different stages there are interactive video snippets, helping you to appreciate the values and purpose of mindfulness. Andy challenges you to practice for just ten minutes a day, for ten days.

When I first downloaded the app, I could not concentrate for longer than ten seconds. I would lay on my bed starting at the ceiling. ‘Noticing the sensations in my body…oh fuck me that hurts. When is my assignment due? Did I feed Willow twice tonight? Oh wait yeah noticing the sensations. Am I doing this wrong?’. The thing about mindfulness is you can’t really do it wrong. Each time that you realise you have become lost in your thoughts, Andy encourages you to merely gently come back to the act of mindfulness.

mindfulness

The thing about developing the ability to practice mindfulness is that, in the words of John Green, it happens slowly and then all at once. One day you are staring at the ceiling contemplating what breed dog you would be, and the next you are able to practice for a full ten minutes, and able to guide yourself back to being aware. More importantly for the cynics in the crowd, the science is there to back it up, Timon and Pumba style. There have been various studies on the benefits of mindfulness for people living with Chronic Illness, however one particular study conducted a systematic review of the efficacy of Mindfulness-based stress reduction in Chronic Illness treatment. Having reviewed 18 separate studies, every single one of them demonstrated improvement in the condition of patients after participating in MBSR. Not only was it found to improve people’s physical health but potentially more importantly, it improved their ability to cope with the physical symptoms of their condition (Niazi, AK., & Niazi SK., 2011).

Practicing mindfulness has not reduced my pain. It has not changed it, nor lessened my discomfort. But it has given me permission to stop running from my own physical reality.

And I cannot tell you how nice it is to stop running.

Next post. A review of Yoga Nidra.

What has been your experience of mindfulness? 

Reference: 

Niazi, AK., & Niazi SK. (2011). Mindfulness-based stress reduction: a non-pharmacological approach for chronic illness. North American Journal of Medical Sciences, 3(1), 20-23. doi:10.4297/najms.2011.320

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One thought on “Chronic Illness and…Mindfulness.

  1. a well written post Jess! for years I always wished I wasn’t blind but have had to accept the fact that nothing’s going to change that and being given the opportunity to see again has its drawbacks. when I lost a kidney to kidney cancer I wished I hadn’t lost that kidney but in reality had I kept that kidney I know I’d have gotten sicker or died I’m not exactly the type for meditating my mind’s going at a million miles an hour and I can’t sit still too long I just keep moving around and doing things except when I’m asleep but that’s me and my opinions there.

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