How Meditation Can Help You Cope with Chronic Illness

Patient Expert

Living with chronic illness is stressful. These types of conditions are often unpredictable and require a lot of changes to how you live your life, work, and interact with your loved ones. But it’s more than that. The simple act of being can be challenging as pain, fatigue, nausea, and other symptoms accompany your every breath.

Meditation can help.

What is meditation?

In everyday speech, the word meditation can mean a number of different things. People might use it to describe daydreaming on a park bench or thinking deeply about a particular issue. However, the actual act of meditation is something very different. It is a practice of concentrating in a quiet way, focusing on the present moment. The goal of meditating is to reduce stress, help you relax, and foster personal or spiritual growth.

There are a variety of traditions and techniques for meditation. Mindfulness-based meditation is commonly used in group and individual practice by people with chronic illness and other medical conditions. It is particularly well known for helping people in those communities deal with the stress involved in living with health challenges.

Thinkstock & Lene Andersen

Benefits of meditation with chronic illness

Including meditation in your coping toolbox can help you live better with chronic illness, both physically and emotionally.

Studies on meditation bear this out. One study of individuals with chronic conditions (arthritis, fibromyalgia, IBS) found that individuals who received training in mindfulness-based stress reduction, which includes meditation practice, experienced less pain, anxiety, and depression. A meta-analysis of a number of studies into the effects of mindfulness indicated that it has “the potential for helping many to learn to deal with chronic disease and stress.”

How to meditate

In order to meditate you don’t have to sit in the lotus position with your hands on your knees and the best posture seen since women gave up corsets. At its heart, meditation is about sitting quietly and focusing within. The best description I’ve ever heard of meditation was when I was speaking with the pain specialist Jan Carstoniu, M.D., as research for my first book, Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain. He described it as the following:

  • Sit down
  • Don’t move
  • Shut up

It sounds simple, but as many simple things go, it can get a bit tricky. Although your physical self might be comfortable and still, your brain is likely to be racing. That’s normal — even the most experienced practitioners of meditation have thoughts galloping around in their mind when they meditate. The key is to not engage with the thoughts, just watch them pass by. That takes practice, but if you find yourself getting sidetracked by thinking about your grocery list or the stressful meeting with your boss earlier in the day, let them go and return to sitting quietly.

It’s usually recommended that you meditate 20 minutes a day, but many people find that a bit daunting to begin with. Start with five minutes and work your way up as you are comfortable.

Meditation and mindfulness can be very valuable additions to your toolbox of coping techniques and can help you live better with chronic illness. Whether you follow mindfulness-based techniques or other types of meditations probably doesn’t matter. What’s important is the practice of focusing inward to reduce stress, pain, and depression.

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