When Symptoms are Worse Mindfulness can Help
When a condition has no cure and symptoms come and go, often without warning; the mind is on constant alert, monitoring for these changes. This internal alarm system brings us to heightened awareness with enhanced focus on new or worsening symptoms as our mind constantly monitors for a negative change. If not reset this internal alarm systems sets up an ever stronger daily reminder that you have a problem and things are just ‘not right.’ As a result, your symptoms become coupled to negative feelings and set the stage for distress, worry, anxieties and fear - about how you feel now and how you may change in the future. These feelings and your symptom become a daily focus as the mind becomes preoccupied with negativity and fear. Left unchecked, negative thoughts can ‘spill over’ into the rest of the day and/or interactions with other people.
The mind can become so preoccupied with the negative impact of symptoms that living in the moment can become lost. The mind translates the sensations from the body and can effect these very sensations, so too can the mind translate the power of healing over the body. The power to heal the whole person can be found within.
What these observations tell us is that the power to heal can come from many places. Medication and surgery can treat symptoms and restore many of the body’s functions that can be lost from disease. However, modern science and medicine may not be enough and does not treat the experience of the person in the moment when symptoms or distress overwhelms. The power to heal, to be and feel whole, to know that you are OK, comes from you.
Our mind can be our strongest asset or biggest obstacle when it comes to feeling better. Taking steps to change our habits for healthier living toward a focus on healing requires a commitment from the mind. Your mind will influence how you feel. Think about a time when stress was a major part of your life. Did your symptoms (mood, pain, fatigue) get worse? Or perhaps these very symptoms or problems started during that time of stress? This is a powerful example of how the mind can influence how we feel and how the brain reacts. Over time, repeated or runaway stress can change how we think, how we react and can negatively impact our health. This effect can also work in the opposite way. You might think of your favorite place, relaxing on vacation or other time when stress was at a minimum. How did your symptoms respond? Were they less intense? Less bothersome?
Chronic stress negatively affects our body and mind. Conversely, low stress and enjoyable experiences positively affects our body and mind.
Fortunately, we can modify how our mind and brain react to stress and reduce the impact on disease. A well-known and measurable example of this is the placebo effect. Innovative research shows that expectations we bring to a treatment will in part determine the strength of the placebo effect.
Hope, belief, and positive expectations that a treatment will work will increase the chances it will do so.
Mindfulness therapy is a powerful technique that can reduce the negative impact of stress and sharpen the mind’s potential for personal healing. Mindfulness as a practice can provide just this- a way to stay in the present moment, engaging in life and living life as fully as you can. Mindfulness is often defined as being present, in the moment, with intention in a non-judgmental way. Being mindful allows the mind to see things for what they are and then to let the thoughts go, instead of letting our thoughts control our body, mind and brain function. So how can this help you?
Being present in the moment helps one become aware of the many thoughts, ideas, distractions and assumptions that drive our behavior and impact our well-being on a daily basis. Our mind can become distracted by making assumptions, jumping to conclusions, and forming judgments that can have a negative impact on our thoughts. Becoming aware of these roaming or ruminating thoughts is the first step to living in the moment. Observing your thoughts without judgment helps you become more aware of your body, sensations, emotions and surroundings.
This technique is particularly powerful for people living with chronic illness. For example, when symptoms worsen you now have one of two choices- to react or respond. These choices at first glance may seem very similar but they are indeed very different in mindset and outcome.
• React. By reacting you are giving control to the spontaneous thoughts and feelings that affect your behavior and how you feel. Your spontaneous thoughts are unique to you but often include judgments such as ‘my disease or problem is ruining my life, my disease is worse, I must fix this or stop this now, If only I didn’t have this problem everything would be fine.’ These reactions can lead to a ‘snow ball effect’ further worsening stress leading to yet worsening how you feel.
• Respond. By responding you are no longer reacting but instead observing and choosing how to respond. How you respond is up to you. ‘This problem or thought will pass, I will sit for a few minutes to let this pass, I have experienced this before, I can take some active steps to distress.’ By choosing your response you gain a sense of control and change the very relationship you have to your disease or symptom.
This does not mean that you have given into your symptoms or enjoy the fact that you have them (or any other medical condition or problem in your life) but it does reduce the downward spiral that can happen when life gives you problems or obstacles.
Mindfulness can be an informal spontaneous practice or a formal and structured approach. A spontaneous and informal practice is present many times, perhaps endless number of times throughout the day. These daily experiences and moments are used as an opportunity to take notice and be present. The next time you awaken to a sunrise, hear the laughter of a child or are stuck in traffic you can practice mindfulness. Simply bringing awareness to the moment, identifying any feelings the experience brings on and how this influences us. (Note: road rage is a good example of how our behavior can be driven by emotions and thoughts without our full awareness and this reaction will cause us stress, increase aggressive driving and affect our mood, behavior and perhaps the entire morning!)
Mindfulness is also practiced as a formal exercise with meditation. One way to practice mindfulness meditation is to sit quietly and calmly but with attention and awareness. Bringing your attention to your breathing is one way to focus your attention. During this time you will simply observe your thoughts, feelings sensations and perceptions and let them pass without judging them, labeling them or controlling them. Meditation is a practice and as such the benefits will improve with time and practice. Overtime you will learn to apply these skills to everyday events. When something happens that requires your attention you now have the insight to respond and not simply react. Described in another way, your symptoms no longer drive your reactions as you can intentionally decide how to respond to them. This element of control and intention can liberate you from their hold on your emotions.
Mindfulness is not without risk that can come from paying attention to and increasing your awareness of thoughts and behavior. Individuals with psychotic disorders, significant depression or post- traumatic stress disorder should meditate under the care of a mental health professional.
Next time you feel ‘out of control’ take a moment to reflect and know that you have control, control in how you respond.
Author: Monique Giroux, MD