Mindfulness is the process of bringing one's attention to what is occurring in the present moment. If you live with chronic illness, odds are that you have been told to do activities that promote mindfulness. When living with serious symptoms, it can be hard to see how mindfulness helps or how you will find the time/energy to engage in these activities. The trick is to find mindfulness in the everyday things you already do - you usually don’t even have to set more time aside. The main focus of mindfulness is the stay present and be fully in the moment. You can do this by simply taking a few deep breaths and focus on how your body feels. When you tune into your senses and pay attention to what you hear, see, touch, smell, or taste can help bring you back into the present. You don’t have to be fully mindful, that is very hard to do! You may notice that your mind wanders and that is okay. Part of being in the moment is accepting every feeling - even the uncomfortable ones. Acknowledge if you feel something unpleasant, painful, or uncomfortable. If the simplicity of mindfulness isn’t convincing enough to make you want to engage, here are some ways that mindfulness helps chronic illness.
Being mindful actually does improve your health. MRI scans have shown that after practicing mindfulness for eight weeks straight, the brain’s ‘fight or flight’ center (the amygdala) appears to shrink. This region of your brain is associated with fear and emotion. As the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex (associated with awareness, concentration, and decision-making) becomes thicker. The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker, while the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration get stronger.
There are many stressful elements associated with living with chronic illness. Being mindful can help lessen the effects of stress by giving you a moment to stop and think about what is going on around you. Sometimes just taking these few seconds can be the difference between an overly emotional response and a thoughtful, calmer response. Additionally, with better focus, you will be able to handle your stress more effectively.
Reducing anxiety and depression symptoms
Symptoms of anxiety and depression can feel debilitating, such as distorted thinking, difficulty concentrating, and forgetfulness. These symptoms can impair your daily life and interfere with school or work. When you practice mindfulness and focus on the here and now, you can become more aware of your negative or anxious thoughts, which allows you to acknowledge them without judgement. Mindfulness will show you that your thoughts are less powerful.
Improving sleep quality
Living with chronic illness can create high levels of stress. This stress can prevent you from getting an appropriate amount of sleep, which can increase your symptoms. Research proves that even a small amount of mindfulness meditation can help calm our hyperactive minds and improve our sleep. Meditators experienced steady improvements in sleep quality, sleep duration, and mindfulness.
Some ways to practice mindfulness
Take a shower
Read a book
Take deep breaths
Look at pictures of nature
Engage in activity that involves slowing your mind down and being present
Work with a therapist. To work with a therapist who is experienced with mindfulness and chronic illness, click here.