Chronic illness can take many different forms, but the feelings that often accompany it are the same — anxiety, confusion, depression, stress.
When I tell people that meditation can help them cope with chronic illness, they often seem skeptical. But in my own life and for the cancer patients I work with, I’ve found that meditation can be a powerful coping and healing tool.
The healing power of mindfulness
Human beings are always doing, most of the time without being aware or mindful. We go through our day, doing. Always doing. Rarely ever just being.
But especially when you have a chronic illness, it’s important to take a few minutes to just be still.
Being diagnosed with a chronic illness can stir up feelings of depression, causing you to be preoccupied or anxious. Sometimes, it’s actually the lack of diagnosis that causes these same feelings. Starting in my early childhood, I experienced mysterious periodic swelling of my large joints. After years of on and off joint swelling, severe abdominal pain and gut issues, I was eventually diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a form of chronic inflammatory bowel disease, in 2000.
With that diagnosis came multiple medication regimens, lengthy hospitalizations and life-altering surgeries requiring adjustments to my body image — which, as you can imagine, caused me even more anxiety.
I know these feelings are not unique to me. Many people with chronic or terminal illnesses experience these feelings of anxiety or depression. First, I want you to know that this is normal. And second, I want you to know that meditation can help.
Over the years, I learned that practicing mindfulness could help minimize my physical symptoms and help me cope with the anxiety I felt about my illness.
Learning how to meditate
Years ago, I began reading books and listening to tapes on mindfulness. In the beginning, I found it difficult to stay focused on breathing without distractions, but with more practice I was able to have fewer distractions and more moments of peace and calm.
I have noticed that meditation and mindfulness are gaining in popularity, both of which can be extremely beneficial for your mental and physical wellbeing.
Mindfulness, or focusing on the present moment, can help ease your worries, regrets, anxieties and concerns. Research has shown meditation can relieve stress, lower blood pressure and reduce chronic pain.
I developed my own simple, yet effective, meditation routine that requires no special equipment or memberships. I use these principles to lead a weekly meditation group of cancer patients, caregivers and staff at the Baylor Sammons Cancer Center’s Cvetko Patient Education Center.
My hope is that you can use these guidelines to practice mediation on your own time:
- Stay focused. It is important to be focused on the sensations in your body, then re-direct that focus on your breath. Invariably and predictably, distractions come into focus. A simple acknowledgement and re-focusing on the breath is all it takes to redirect your meditation.
- Be quiet. The mind is a busy place. It does not like to be quiet. Quiet surroundings can help you focus on natural breathing. With practice and repetition, your mind begins to accept that it will need to be quiet.
- Keep breathing. Remember to breathe with purpose, practice and repetition. When distractions arise, always bring the focus back to your breath. Remember, it doesn’t take a great deal of effort — the breath comes on its own and your body innately knows just how much breath you need.
- Be present. If thoughts arise, they should be acknowledged and dismissed, like clouds floating across a blue sky. Your mind is reminded that at this present moment there is no place to be and there is nothing to do, except to be and breathe.
Even a few moments of focused breathing and mindfulness can help you relax, which is important in managing all types of stress. Meditation is a workout for your mind — just like any other muscle, it needs continuous care. The more you practice mediation, the stronger you will become, both mentally and physically.
Your chronic illness does not have to define you. Take a few moments and try practicing meditation today.
As an oncology nurse, I lead a meditation group of cancer patients, caregivers, staff and survivors at Baylor University Medical Center. Get connected with cancer support groups like this near you.