July 14, 2024

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The Role of Mindfulness in Managing Chronic Health Conditions

Mindfulness can be helpful in reducing irritation about having to live with long-term health problems over the long-term. It might reduce symptoms and the burden and stress they cause, meaning that long-term health problems become a more manageable part of your life.

Research shows that, for those who do make the habit regular, pain episodes have the ability to wane considerably; brain imaging has revealed that those who practise mindfulness have less activity in parts of the brain that transmit pain messages.

Practice Presence

Mindfulness, then, refers to paying attention in the present moment – fully accepting whatever thoughts and feelings present themselves in the mind or bodily sensations in the body, without trying to force them away or indulge in them. Mindfulness can be a comfort to someone with a chronic illness by reminding you that you are much more than the labels and symptoms that come with it, while equipping you with strategies to stay present and be compassionate both to yourself and others, even when the daily challenges exhaust you.

While formal practice certainly has its place, you can be mindful without being formal: for instance, when you wash up or fold the laundry. Focus on the feeling of the water running over your hands; the smell of the detergent; the sounds of the water; the feel of the clothing as it goes into the laundry basket or in the washing machine; the way you feel as you do this; then, very regularly, bring your attention back to the present moment.

Practice Self-Compassion

Chronic health conditions are some of the most burdensome problems in the world. They bring suffering to people and their loved ones, and cost our society billions of dollars. But here’s the good news: ACT provides important solutions for people suffering with painful chronic health conditions.

A primary aspect of self-compassion is the recognition and acceptance of our negative emotions such as fear and sadness. When we try to push these painful feelings away, they sometimes get louder. Through mindfulness, we can notice what we’re experiencing and allow difficult feelings and connected thoughts to emerge.

In this way, mindfulness can contribute to self-compassion by fostering a richer sense of connectedness with all that life has to offer – people, for sure, but also food, music, hugs, sunshine, and everything else that pulses with the rhythm of our beating hearts.

Practice Self-Awareness

Mindfulness is the state of full, conscious, attention to whatever thoughts, feelings and emotions come into your awareness at any given moment, observing them from a distance with neutrality, without any sense of self-judgment and criticism. Second, mindfulness is the capacity to stay aware of feeling signals from your body and modulate (or reduce) the signals of pain (see Figure 1).

Empirical work has demonstrated that mindfulness results in improvements in self-care and quality of life, and positive changes in mental and physical health and immune function, although follow-up studies are needed. For instance, the effect sizes for MBSR programmes might be skewed because they typically occur in a therapeutic context by a direct practitioner of the eight-week programme; additionally, most participants tend to be white, middle-class women participating, which would likely skew the results toward better outcomes, and might not be generalisable to other populations. Future work will also focus on more rigorous experimental designs with higher participant retention (which has been an issue in many studies), while also monitoring fidelity in the intervention.

Practice Gratitude

Gratitude becomes a technique through which we learn to acknowledge and appreciate the small gifts of life – a friend’s smile, a steaming cup of coffee in our hands, taking in an extraordinary sunset.

Simply expressing gratitude can serve as a healthy way to break out of destructive negativity, through say the (admittedly less intense) thank-you note or the more rigorous version of the authors’ ‘counting blessings’ exercise that appears in McCullough and Emmons (2003).

Research findings have consistently shown that people with higher levels of gratitude report greater life satisfaction. For example, in 2007, Alexandra B Sheldon, one of my graduate students, and Sonja Lyubomirsky, our colleague at the University of California at Riverside, conducted the first meta-analysis or systematic scientific summary of this literature and found that people who had completed gratitude interventions were happier overall.

Practice Non-Judgement

The more you enquire within about how you are experiencing something, non-judgmentally allowing that experience to be, the more your mind opens up to a sense of peace. You become increasingly willing to accept that life is in motion, and that things are as they are – often, much wider than your current perception of them.

Mindfulness takes you off the hedonic treadmill, which is not only comparing ourselves to impossible ideals of ourselves or imaginary things that could be real, but worrying about money, worrying about an event in your life coming up, fretting – worrying is the main one. When you can let go of worrying you can just ride the wave of whatever is coming.

Keep in mind that mindfulness might not work for you at all and that it might take practice before it re-enters your toolbox, but it could work for you, and studies suggest that it can be an aid to self-management in people with chronic health conditions.