Reviewed by Phillip Waite, Ph.D.
Mindfulness was not a term I was familiar with when I was diagnosed with chronic illness 17 years ago. Looking back, I wish I had known more about how to practice it in my life. It would have saved me a lot of worry, distress, and hopelessness. I've since learned that mindfulness is a set of skills for healing, intuition, insight, calmness, focus, resilience, and hope that you can use to counter the inevitable adversity of chronic illness.
Psychology Today defines mindfulness 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."
Like so many of you, I've dealt with my share of disappointments, heartache, pain and tragedy, many of which have followed from being chronically ill. A few years after my diagnosis with chronic illness, I was rear ended in a car accident that left me with chronic pain in my head and neck (officially known as occipital neuralgia). It often left me with debilitating headaches that made even everyday tasks seem overwhelming. At the same time, my wife and I were expecting our first child in a few months and I was was trying to finish graduate school. The stress of chronic illness, injury, impending fatherhood, and my dim career prospects weighed heavily on me. I didn't think I could survive it. It was too much. I didn't bargain for this.
This was not in my life plan!
I soon found myself spending a lot of time involved in catastrophic thinking. I was caught in a self induced whirlwind of anxiety where I imagined irrational worst-case scenarios for just about everything. What if I end up permanently disabled? How can I be a good father if I'm always sick? What if my next treatment doesn't work and I get even worse? How can I even contemplate my career future if I can't even get through a day without blinding pain? This led to a state of fearfulness, anxiety, and depression where I constantly worried about the past and the future, sometimes simultaneously. I felt paralyzed. I was unable to find any hope for the future or move forward with any purpose.
Not much has changed in my physical symptoms since those days. I still have chronic head and neck pain after spinal surgery failed to resolve it. I still get migraine-like headaches that can feel at their worst as if the world is collapsing in on me. I still deal with the daily muscle pain and stiffness of Fibromyalgia and suffer from recurring painful "attacks" with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (which for years was misdiagnosed as Crohn's Disease).
But a LOT has changed for the BETTER in my life!
I'm now a father of 4 wonderful children. I have a satisfying career that has enabled me to develop professionally and support my family financially. I'm a lay leader in my local church with the opportunity to give rewarding service to others. I have a beautiful home and a loving wife. In short, I am blessed.
So what changed?
Practicing mindfulness is still a learning process for me. I'm by no means an expert. But over the years I've been fortunate to learn some of the basic skills of how to be more mindful. Here are 9 ways mindfulness has helped me heal with chronic illness and can help you too:
1. Be good to yourself, treat yourself with kindness and compassion.
2. Live life with awareness in the present moment.
3. Know yourself, don't let your illness define you.
4. Enjoy the beauty of things as they are, not as you wish they were.
5. Recognize and explore sources of healing, peace, spirituality, and calmness to develop your resilience for the hard times.;
6. Seek healing by serving others around you.
7. Surround yourself with people that love, support, and inspire you, especially when facing adversity.
8. Let go of the life you had planned and accept the opportunities and hopefulness of the life that awaits you.
9. Be grateful.
It hasn't been easy. It's a rocky road sometimes. I still have moments of self pity, anxiety, depression, fear, and hopelessness. We all do. But I don't linger there long. The gratitude that mindfulness brings won't allow it!