When you’re looking for ways to cope with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), sooner or later, you will come across a recommendation to meditate. Sometimes, it even seems as if it can cure all that ails you, including pain, hangnails, and the urge to eat too much chocolate.
Indeed, multiple studies show that meditation can reduce anxiety, depression, and the experience of chronic pain accompanying any chronic illness. Meditation can also help improve your self-esteem and quality of life, [body image, and help you feel more able to participate in your life]. The evidence for the benefits is so solid that many pain management programs include lessons on using mindfulness meditation, a type which may be especially helpful for those of us with chronic illness. It focuses on paying attention to the present moment without judgment. Being very present is a great antidote for the anxiety and worry that can come with RA.
I have tried meditating before—multiple times, actually, and with different techniques. It’s always made me feel calmer and more relaxed physically and emotionally. The challenge is making it a regular habit. So this go around, that’s what I focused on: trying to stick with it for 30 days. Here are five strategies that helped me the most:
1. Try an App.
Having someone guide you in the meditation can be incredibly helpful. It gives you something to focus on, as well as serves as a gentle reminder of what to do. I tried two apps, Calm and Insight Timer, available in your app store. Both have free versions, and multiple guided meditations for different purposes, as well as lots of other features. Calm worked better for me for a purely personal reason—it’s designed to exude calm, so it felt very soothing. I even invested in the paid version.
2. Start With Just a Few Minutes at a Time.
There are many different techniques you can use with meditation, but they all involve sitting still with your eyes closed and not talking for a while, often 20 minutes. This is much, much harder than it sounds, and it’s usually where I trip up. Somehow, I convince myself that taking those 20 minutes out of my day will make me late for everything, so I end up sitting there in various stages of panic. To get over it, I decided to give myself a reality check—after all, 20 minutes really isn’t a long time. Then I chose to start slowly, listening to guided meditations lasting about five minutes, and gradually worked my way up.
3. Remember That It’s About Practice, not Perfection.
In Buddhist meditation, they use the term “monkey mind” to describe the constant chatter of your brain. Trying to sit still and focus on one thing (or nothing) will very quickly make you realize that meditation is about trying to do that, not actually doing it. Even people who are very experienced find that their mind wanders constantly. The goal is to not engage with the thoughts, but just let them pass, going back to your focus. Using guided meditations that reinforced this was really helpful for me. It didn’t stop the buzz of my mind, but I got better fairly quickly at bringing myself back to focus. Even when it felt like I had to do it multiple times a minute.
4. Pay Attention to How It Affects You, Not Your Neighbor.
Every time I meditated, I felt wonderful. All my tense muscles relaxed, my mind calmed down, and when it was time to open my eyes, I felt refreshed and alert. On days that I meditated, my stress levels reduced and my mood improved. Again and again, I would be reminded that I feel better, physically, emotionally, and spiritually when I meditate. I didn’t notice any direct impact on my RA, as such, except for the benefits of relaxation on a slight reduction in my pain levels. For me, meditation has a greater impact on my ability to cope mentally and emotionally.
5. Pick the Same Time Each Day and Stick to It.
When I say I “tried” meditating for 30 days, it’s because I didn’t succeed in doing it every single day. If I didn’t meditate at a particular time, before the day got away from me, it didn’t happen. Pick a time of day when you’re most able to make it happen. You’re probably going to miss days and that’s OK. When that happened to me, instead of giving up, I reminded myself of two things. First, that so far this year, I have meditated more than in the last decade or more. And second, there’s another reason they call it meditation practice: because if you keep trying, you’ll get there eventually.