'Mindfulness' training can help people adapt to chronic health difficulties
Julie Falk RN, MS, RYT | 02.20.14
Stress reduction through mindfulness training has helped many people to adapt to serious life challenges.
We all know that chronic illness takes a toll on the body. Whether the condition is high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, diabetes or painful arthritis, we expect the essence of the problem to reside in the physical body. Therefore, we generally accept that any treatment leading to improvement must also be aimed at the body. And so, in the hope of reducing (or banishing) our symptoms, we dedicate all our energy to fixing whatever part is ailing.
Now modern medicine absolutely does have a lot to offer, but there is more to chronic illness than just the physical condition. Each of us is a complex being including physical body, thoughts and feelings. When something changes in one of these realms, it cannot help but affect the others. Chronic health problems certainly impact the body, but they also trigger change in our minds and emotions. And you may have already noticed that stress in your thoughts or feelings can truly worsen the difficulties in the body. Body, thoughts and feelings are as interwoven as the finest tapestry.
We do need to keep consulting our healthcare providers, and following the best advice about diet, exercise and medications. But the thing about chronic health problems is that they rarely go away. We co-exist with them, learning to minimize their impact on the body. The biggest challenges, though, are often co-existing with the changes to our lifestyles. Is it not stressful to think we can never again eat the foods we crave? Is it not painful to think we won’t be running or hiking like we used to? And how can we accept our growing dependence on other people? It can be hard to imagine ever feeling contentment again when one is asked to accept such major changes.
There is now a compelling body of evidence that supports the use of “mindfulness” training to assist people in living better with the challenges of chronic health difficulties. Mindfulness is the ability to hold our attention in the present moment, receiving whatever is unfolding in a non-judgmental way. This is rather like the well-known prayer where people ask for the “serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” It’s not our typical mindset, so it does require training to develop this ability. The good news is that we can do this at any age.
Stress reduction through mindfulness training has helped many people to adapt to serious life challenges. In the eight weeks of training, participants learn mindful movement and meditation techniques to re-shape the habitual response to stress. A group of cardiac patients who recently completed the training through WellSpan in Gettysburg commented positively about the effect of the techniques in their own lives. For those who might be struggling with such issues, another course will be starting in Gettysburg in March.
Well-being is not something that can be given to us by someone else. It comes from within, and it is more than just the absence of disease. Whatever change comes our way in the state of our bodies, we are called to respond with both body and mind. Exploring a mindful response to our health helps us to find the opportunity for growth in any condition.
Julie Falk RN, MS, RYT teaches stress reduction and yoga at WellSpan’s Center for Mind/Body Health. She can be contacted at (717) 339-2033.