The Science of Savoring Simple Pleasures: How Mindfulness of Good Moments can Reduce Stress and Improve Wellbeing in Chronic Illness

Does the following description capture what goes on in your mind as you go about your day?

Your frequently scan your body to assess changing pain levels, fatigue, body temperature, medication side effects, and mental function. You monitor your changing environment – from noise, lights, smells, the distance you have to travel, to finding a comfortable position to sit in, among many other features. Then you try to calculate how you should modify your plans based on all of these factors, like a computer running a complex algorithm.

It’s exhausting. In this state, your brain is constantly on red alert and your nervous system is tautly wound, waiting for the next threat or crisis to jump out and surprise you. And for good reason, since, if you have a chronic condition, your body is constantly assaulted by difficult and unpredictable symptoms, which in turn make it challenging to navigate different environments. However, when the brain and nervous system are frequently in crisis mode, they trigger a flood of stress hormones, including cortisol and norepinephrine. This reaction is called the fight or flight mode and it primes your body to cope with dangerous situations. Cortisol and norepinephrine cause a cascade of body wide changes – fast pulse, shallow breathing, racing thoughts, sticky palms, and tensed muscles. Studies have found that people living with fibromyalgia have a hyperactive fight or flight response, which is correlated with pain levels.

Being in a constant state of stress causes your mental, emotional and physical well-being to suffer. In fact, the frequent presence of cortisol actually sensitizes the region of the brain that assesses threat levels to stressors. This region is called the amygdala, and when it becomes sensitized to cortisol, it puts our central nervous system on a hairtrigger, ready to overreact to nonthreatening situations. Stress worsens pain levels, fatigue, anxiety and depression.

We want our brain to accurately assess potential risks and opportunities, to be vigilant but not hypervigilant. So how can we calm a stressed out nervous system? One promising avenue advocated by Rick Hanson is through a set of mindfulness practices that intentionally focus on sensory pleasures and good moments that we typically disregard. Instead of only scanning for negatives, like pain and fatigue, we do the opposite – deliberately bringing our attention to what feels good and enjoyable throughout the day.

Mindfulness means paying attention, on purpose, to the present moment, with acceptance. Mindfulness meditation is often taught as a brain exercise, in which you learn to practice concentrating on the present moment, one breath at a time. When your mind inevitably wanders off, you bring it back to the present moment, over and over. Gradually you get better at staying in the here and now for longer stretches of time. Just as importantly, you learn about the types of worries that draw your attention, like a moth to a flame. When you know more about the underlying problems that bother you, you can take better care of yourself while you cope with those challenges.

The point of these exercises is not to disregard all of the information your senses are communicating to you about how you’re doing. For example, body awareness is important for pacing when you live with chronic pain, so that you don’t overdo an activity and trigger a flareup. However, being mindfully aware is different than being hypervigilant. Life can often be easier to handle in the here and now. Sayings like “one problem at a time” and “we’ll cross that bridge when we get there” are good reminders about this simple truth. Most anxiety comes from ruminating on the past or worrying about the future.

It’s all too easy for me to jump from noticing that my neck is sore when I wake up to worrying that I won’t be able to do any computer work next two days and all of my work will have to be put on hold. That might happen, but then again it may not happen. It’s much more productive for me to do what I can in the moment, like taking a warm shower or gently stretching my neck than imagining all of the worst-case scenarios. Unfortunately, if you’re like me, simply resolving not to jump to conclusions won’t stop your mind from going ahead and jumping ahead anyway. Staying present takes practice.

Mindfulness also opens us up to the sensory experiences and good moments that we typically disregard while we go around on autopilot. Present moment awareness is a natural state of being that we’ve all experienced, perhaps while watching a beautiful sunset, savouring a delicious meal or sharing a poignant moment with a loved one. Often we wish we could be more present, more of the time. Mindfulness makes us feel like we are living our lives to the fullest.

Rick Hanson explains that we can turn these simple pleasures into informal mindfulness practices, by stopping briefly several times during the day. He calls these practices “taking in the good”. The first step is to notice a positive moment – essentially, stop and smell the roses. For example, stopping to recognize a sensory experience like taking your first step of coffee in the morning, enjoying a good hug, or gazing out the window. The moment doesn’t have to be perfect – you’re not waiting for pure bliss, just a moment of appreciation. Or it could take the form of a good feeling, like a small (or big) accomplishment, sharing a laugh with a loved one or playing with your pet. These moments are available to us every day but we normally forget them soon after they happen because, as Hanson says, our brains are “Teflon for good but Velcro for bad.”

The second step is to stay with the sense of enjoyment or appreciation for at least 12 seconds. Mindfully return your attention to your senses if it wanders off. I find it particularly helpful to notice where in my body I have the felt sense of enjoyment, such as a warm feeling in the heart region or a release of tension the neck muscles. Finally, intentionally decide to absorb this positive experience. You could imagine breathing in the good sensations or feelings that accompanied the experience. Hanson suggests visualizing putting the experience inside a box or imagining a warm glow spreading through your chest. I like the idea of imagining stringing a pearl onto a strand, with each one representing recent good experiences.

These practices may sound new age-y or silly but there is research behind them to show how they can change the brain and enhance a sense of overall well-being. The brain is comprised of billions of neuron cells, which signal each other across small gaps called synapses. When we repeatedly engage a neural circuit, it changes the brain: “active synapses become more sensitive, new synapses start growing within minutes, busy regions get more blood since they need more oxygen… [and] the genes inside neurons turn on and off (Hanson).” In contrast, less active neural circuits begin to wither. Intentionally focusing on positive experiences can lower the activity of brain regions that trigger stress and increase the activity of the nervous system associated with well-being. You can ‘use the mind to build the brain’, which is a powerful tool for coping better with chronic illness challenges. Personally, I have found a greater sense of enjoyment in the everyday since I began ‘taking in the good’.

First published in UK Fibro Magazine

Hanson, Rick. 2013. Hardwiring happiness: the new brain science of contentment calm, and confidence. Harmony: NY, United States.

Martinez-Martinez LA, Mora T, Vargas A, et al. Sympathetic nervous system dysfunction in fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, and interstitial cystitis: a review of case-control studies. J Clinical Rheumatol 2014;20:14650

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Mind Games: How I Cope During a Chronic Illness Relapse Using Brain Exercises

relapse

Around the holidays a couple of years ago, I got a bad cold which left me exhausted. Of course, I assumed that once I got better, my (limited) energy would return. It didn’t. I spent months in a state of brain fog and fatigue. By the mid spring, the relapse gradually began to ebb, although I still didn’t return to pre-viral levels for several more months.

The next holiday season, my pelvic pain increased substantially.  As I wait for more procedures, I worry about how I will cope with this ‘new normal’, which is interfering with my sleep and sometimes restricting my movement to the length of my heating pad cord!

I felt completely overwhelmed at the outset of my fatigue relapse last year.  First, there was the emotional reaction to a new situation: anxiety about whether it was here to stay, frustration that life was about to get more difficult, and grief at the prospect of losing what abilities I still had.  Secondly, there was the practical challenge of figuring out how I would cope, like what new treatment options to try or how to manage my daily routines and responsibilities.  Lastly, I faced the impact of a relapse on my relationships, such as the increased caregiver burden on my partner, and feeling less able to be present with family and friends.

My relapse brought me back to the beginning of my illness journey and how I coped after my diagnosis. I was able to use many of the lessons that had been learned the hard way the first time around. Now that I’m facing a similar situation, yet again, I wanted to write them out for myself –  I hope they may help someone else out there too. In essence, what I have learned is that I have the power of choice over what I focus my attention on each day. Through challenging negative patterns of thinking, being present, taking in the good, and pursuing an enjoyable hobby, I try to emphasize what enriches my life and let go of what doesn’t. Of course there are always bad days and I don’t believe any amount of positive thinking frees us from ever experiencing difficult times. I personally have found, however, that changing my worldview has dramatically lessened the amount of suffering I go through during relapses and has improved my quality of life.

1) Challenge Patterns of Negative Thinking: About a year after my diagnosis, I participated in a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy program for pain management. One of the core parts of the program was learning to identify negative thinking traps, or ‘cognitive distortions’.  These are thoughts that “sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves”.[i]

For example, if you think in “all or nothing” terms – a cognitive distortion – you might believe “if I can no longer pursue my career, I am a failure” (click here for a list of other cognitive distortions). A common belief among the participants in the group (me included) was: “Since I don’t work during the day, all I do is sit around the house wasting time”. The facilitator asked us to challenge this belief by making a list of all our daily activities. I was surprised to have a long list that included, for example, preparing my meals, going for a walk, reading a book, writing a blog post, doing my strengthening exercises, etc. I actually do quite a few things each day, and I rarely waste my time.

Now I try to identify when a negative thought is actually just a distortion and then challenge it with the reality of the given situation. I use a great app called ‘What’s up?‘ that lets you journal your thoughts and feelings, rate your mood and then connect them to any unhelpful negative thinking patterns (not an endorsement, just an honest review). It helps to get my head right instead of jumping to the worst-case scenario, which in turn helps me to feel better!

2) Be Present: One of the most powerful tools that has helped me to cope with my illness setbacks is practicing mindfulness, usually defined as “non-judgemental, present moment awareness”.

I attended a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course at my pain clinic that introduced me to how cultivating presence could help me manage my pain.  Much of our anxiety comes from worrying about the future or reliving difficult moments from the past, rather than from anything going on directly in front of us at this moment in time.  Through mindfulness meditation, I have become better at recognizing when my mind as dwelling on the past or projecting into the future, and bringing my attention back to the present.

For example, I’m currently waiting on nerve block to treat my undiagnosed pelvic pain. I have a lot riding on whether this treatment will work – including being able to come off medications while my partner and I try to conceive. Just thinking about it makes me feel anxious and upset.  However, I won’t know anything until after the procedure, which is several weeks away.  Worrying about it now only makes me suffer more.  It’s better for my quality of life if I return my focus to the next best thing I can do for myself in this moment.

One reason I like the What’s up? app is because it includes several grounding exercises that ask you to identify things in your present moment environment, and bring you back to earth if you feel like you’re getting really caught up in a negative train of thought.  As my grandma used to say, worry about crossing that bridge when you get there!

Between spending time on your phone or binge-watching Netflix, it’s easy to become too distracted to enjoy the small moments in life. Meditation can help us relearn to stop and smell the roses. This is especially important for people living with chronic pain. Even during pain flares there are small moments of enjoyment if we stop and notice them — the taste of a good meal, sharing a hug, a sunny day, or a favorite hobby. Intentionally taking in the good moments by staying present while experiencing them is a powerful way to counterbalance the negative experience of feeling worsened symptoms during flareups or relapses.

[i] http://psychcentral.com/lib/15-common-cognitive-distortions/

Acceptance, Grief & Chronic Illness: The Top 4 Ways I Learned to Cope After my Diagnosis

Acceptance Grief and Chronic Illness:THE TOP 4 WAYS I LEARNED TO COPE AFTER MY DIAGNOSISYou probably vividly remember that moment when you sat in a doctor’s office and were told that the explanation for all your confusing symptoms was summed up in a word: fibromyalgia. For some of you, this diagnosis was the first chronic condition you were diagnosed with. For others, it was the second. And for those who had already been diagnosed with multiple chronic illnesses, this one was just another to add to the collection. The reality is that fibromyalgia is one of ten conditions the National Institutes of Health recently labelled Chronic Overlapping Pain Conditions (COPCs ).[1] These include chronic migraine and headache, interstitial cystitis, vulvodynia, IBS, low back pain, endometriosis, TMJ disorders, and chronic fatigue syndrome,  In addition, fibromyalgia is commonly diagnosed alongside autoimmune and inflammatory conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.[2]  Finally, anxiety and depression are much more likely to be co-morbid (found simultaneously) in people living with fibromyalgia.[3]  Many fibromyalgia patients will have the déjà-vu experience of sitting in a doctor’s office and being diagnosed with yet another chronic illness.

I recently relived that experience myself. I sat in my OB-GYN’s office and was told that a recent laparoscopy confirmed that I have endometriosis alongside my fibromyalgia. I told myself that after years of dealing with chronic pain, this was no big deal – same problem, different location. All I needed to do was learn what my treatment options were and then go home and use the self-care skills I have developed over the years to manage my pain. A few days later, while I was examining my incision scars, I broke down in tears. “Get a grip,” I told myself, “this is nothing new“. But as the pelvic pain returned, despite the laparoscopy, and I confronted the reality of dealing with another hard-to-manage chronic illness,  I had to acknowledge my feelings of anger and sadness over this new diagnosis. Intellectually I know that being diagnosed with endometriosis will not change my life as dramatically as my fibromyalgia diagnosis did. I’ve already had to leave my career because of my disabling fibro symptoms. Instead, I stay at home pursuing hobbies, like writing and calligraphy, while I look after my health.

So I wondered, why is this second diagnosis affecting me so much?  To answer this question, I needed to remember what I experienced after my first diagnosis.  As anyone who has had a significant diagnosis knows, you go through a period of grieving afterwards. Grief is the “primary emotional process of reacting to… loss” (Absenger, 2015).[4]  The stages of grief after a diagnosis include: numbness-disbelief, separation distress, depression-mourning, and recovery.[5] While there are similarities to the stages of grief that people generally experience after any loss, the grieving process for people diagnosed with a chronic illness has unique characteristics.  In an article for social workers helping clients with chronic illness, Kate Jackson (2014) explains the difference:

Most often, grief is a reaction to a single, time-limited event… Grief associated with chronic illness, however, is more complex for many individuals.  For people who are chronically ill, the losses are multiple and permanent and therefore difficult to resolve. Because these losses are unending, they’re known as infinite losses.

The scope of losses due to chronic illness are broad and complex, and they can change during the course of an illness.  The loss of health and ability can, in turn, cause losses in a person’s career, social life, sexual function, body image, relationships, parenting ability  and daily functioning, among other areas.  Most fundamentally, these secondary losses caused by chronic illness can fracture self-identity and diminish self-esteem.  The fact that many people with chronic illness feel that their experiences are invalidated by stigma and disbelief can further their sense of isolation.

The concept of infinite losses helped me to understand why a second diagnosis brought up so many difficult emotions. I have had to acknowledge that the grieving process over one, or multiple, illnesses is not a ‘one and done’ kind of thing. Grief comes in waves. If your illness changes, or you develop a new illness, your emotional response will also change because, correspondingly, the losses you experience are new and different. Prior to the pelvic pain that led to my laparoscopy, my fibromyalgia symptoms had stabilized and I had reached a state of acceptance about my illness. I wanted to believe this was a permanent state. I resisted the idea that a new condition would cause me to grieve again (because who wants to go through that once more?). However, I have come to recognize that the losses caused by endometriosis in my life are significantly different than those caused by fibromyalgia.  For me, endometriosis is entangled with my desire to start a family and be a mother, my body image and my sense of femininity. In contrast, fibromyalgia has primarily affected my career aspirations and the part of my identity that was defined by my professional accomplishments.

Once I acknowledged that I was grieving over my second diagnosis, I felt a greater sense of peace.  Resisting these feelings consumed a lot of my energy and effort. Jackson (2014) explains that “people with unresolved grief may experience more profound and difficult-to-treat depression and anxiety”.  Furthermore, the symptoms of a chronic illness can be worsened by unacknowledged grief, including pain, fatigue and cognition.  As people living with chronic illness, I think it’s important that we be on the lookout for experiencing grief when we develop a new illness, or a change in a current illness.  Understanding that grief and acceptance are fluid states can help us be more open to acknowledging grief.  It’s important to seek out support and help once you recognize these feelings. Here are a few tools and resources for coping with grief about your chronic illness, based on what has helped me:

  • Mindfulness meditation: “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally,” according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer of mindfulness in medicine. The Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program created by Jon Kabat-Zinn to teach mindfulness to patients had demonstrated remarkable benefits for reducing chronic pain as well as anxiety and depression in fibromyalgia.[6] You can find an MBSR program in your community, or there is a free version online http://palousemindfulness.com/. Alternatively, you can learn meditation using a free app on your phone. Two of my favourites include the Insight Timer and The Meaning of Life Experiment. You can practice mindfulness through meditation, body scans, mindful eating, or mindful movement like yoga or Tai Chi.
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: Studies have found that participating in CBT can help reduce pain, depressive thoughts, and improve quality of life for people with chronic pain.[7] One of the core parts of the program is learning to identify negative thinking traps, or ‘cognitive distortions’.  These are thoughts that “sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves” (Grohol, 2016).[8] These programs also focus on helpful behaviour changes like learning deep relaxation as well as pacing activities. CBT programs are run in most communities and your doctor should be able to refer you to one.
  • Find a support group, whether in person or online. It can be incredibly powerful to know that you are not alone in facing the challenges caused by your chronic illness. There are private facebook groups for every condition, where you can find support and people with shared experiences. The #spoonie hashtag can help you find other people with chronic illness on twitter. If you are able to, an in-person support group can be an important source of connection if you are struggling. No matter how much support your family and friends can provide, it can help to talk with people who have the same condition(s) you do.
  • Talk with a professional therapist: Unresolved grief is a difficult issue to work through. Many people benefit from talking with an experienced therapist, one-on-one. My advice is to find a counsellor with experience in working with clients who have chronic illness- your specialist may be able to refer you. It’s critical that you ascertain that the therapist validates the existence of your chronic illness and does not tell clients that the illness ‘is all in their head’. Think of the first appointment as an interview, where you see if you are compatible and ask about their professional experience. You may wish to learn more about the therapeutic approaches used by different therapists prior to choosing one. For example, I found that the empathetic, strengths-based counselling provided by a social worker fit much better with my personality than the objective, analytical technique used by a psychiatrist.

Acceptance Grief and Chronic Illness

[1]http://www.overlappingconditions.org/About_COPCs

[2] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0025619615002438

[3] https://www.verywell.com/fibromyalgia-comorbid-overlapping-conditions-716184

[4] Absenger, W. (2015). Mindfulness and the Stages of Grief in Chronic Disease. ACEF. Retrieved 15 April 2017 from http://amacf.org/mindfulness-stages-of-grief-in-chronic-disease/

[5] National Cancer Institute. (2014, October 8). PDQ® grief, bereavement, and coping with loss. National Cancer Institute. Retrieved 15 April 2017 from http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/supportivecare/bereavement/patient

[6] Paul Grossman, Ulrike Gilmer, Annette Raysz and Ulrike Kesper. 2007. Mindfulness Training as an Intervention for Fibromyalgia: Evidence of Postintervention and 3-Year Follow-up Benefits in Well-being. Psychology and Psychosomatics 76: 226-233

[7] Holmes, A., Christelis, N., and Arnold, C. (2012). Depression and chronic pain. MJA Open Suppl (4):17-20.

[8] Grohol, J. (2016). 15 Common Cognitive Distortions. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 15, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/15-common-cognitive-distortions/

Beginning Again: Living with the Ups and Downs of Life with Chronic Illness

Originally published on ProHealth.com

Beginning Again: Living with the Ups and Downs of Life with Chronic IllnessI’m sitting here at home, in the middle of the afternoon, still in my pyjamas.  All I have accomplished today is breakfast and coffee.  Over the past, week my schedule has gone completely off-track.  It started with a significant increase in my endometriosis pain, then worsening insomnia/daytime fatigue, and finally, my neck and upper back decided to get in on the fun by seizing up.  This runaway train was accelerated by lack of exercise, increased anxiety and cabin fever.

Watching my goals, plans, and self-care routines careen out of control is sometimes harder for me to accept the symptoms that come with a flare-up.  Maybe it’s because I have always been a bit of a control freak, but the sense of helplessness, frustration and self-doubt that accompanies this situation is one of the most difficult aspects of living with fibromyalgia for me. This time, as I was venting about how it felt like my daily life had come tumbling down like a house of cards, a question occurred to me: What if the problem isn’t a failure to control or manage my schedule during a flare-up, but a failure to understand that living with chronic illness inevitably involves ups and downs?

Beginning Again: Living with the Ups and Downs of Life with Chronic Illness

The practice of mindfulness meditation offers some answers to this question.  Renowned mindfulness teacher Sharon Salzberg writes that, in contrast to our conditioned belief that self-blame and fear of failure help us succeed, “ease in letting go and kindness in starting over is a lot more effective”.[1]  Repeatedly focusing on negative self-judgment and regret is draining, discouraging and ultimately unsustainable.  Meditation can help us practice being compassionate and non-judgemental towards ourselves, helping us to let go and begin again when things don’t go our way. During meditation, the aim is to focus our attention in the present moment, by concentrating on breathing, scanning the body, or repeating a mantra. Inevitably, we lose focus and become distracted by thoughts, worries, plans or emotions. When we realize this has happened, we gently bring our awareness back to the present moment – this breath, this step, this repetition.

The moment we realize our mind has wandered is the crucial moment of the practice. We have a choice: do we berate ourselves for ‘failing’ and force our attention back to the task at hand? Or do we react with kindness towards ourselves and patiently return our attention to the present moment? Salzberg explains “The invitation to begin again (and again and again) that meditation affords is an invitation to the practice of self-compassion – to heal through letting go rather than harming ourselves with cycles of self-doubt, judgment, and criticism.” From this point of view, meditation is like a playing field where I can train for how to cope with the ups and downs of life with chronic illness. I have realized that I can’t control these fluctuations, but I can change how I relate to them. Instead of reacting with self-recrimination and a sense of helplessness, I can respond with compassion and focus my attention on beginning again in this moment.

There is something incredibly hopeful about knowing that “Always, we begin again”, as St. Benedict wrote. It can also be daunting to think that you will have to begin again…and again…and again.  Recently, I was introduced to the concept of tapas in yoga philosophy.  The word is derived from the Sanskrit verb “to burn” and is often translated as “fiery discipline.”[2] Nobody other than those who live with chronic illness can understand the degree of strength it takes to wake up and try again in the face of all our daily challenges.  We are experts in tapas without even knowing it!  I believe that we should direct the fiery discipline that living with chronic illness cultivates in us towards starting over in each moment – instead of cracking the whip and pushing ourselves harder. If we are fiercely dedicated to beginning anew after each setback, then we can change our relationship to the difficult experiences we encounter.

For me, the unpredictability of living with fibromyalgia is one of the hardest parts. Life with chronic illness is an extreme form of constant uncertainty. As people, we tend to prefer stability to uncertainty. Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun and author, calls this the “fundamental ambiguity of being human” – the longing for predictability and permanence despite the reality that life means constant change (in other words – “this too shall pass”).[3] Chodron argues that resisting this reality leads to suffering and accepting it means freedom. Opening ourselves to the dynamic, changing nature of our experiences releases us from expectations that things should be this way or that way.

For example,  When we try to run away from difficult feelings or hold on to pleasant feelings, we only create more challenges for ourselves.  I feel a sense of freedom by accepting that living with chronic illness means inevitably fluctuating between better and worse days.  Struggling against this by trying to control for every potential outcome is exhausting.  Blaming myself for failing after every flare is depressing.  This doesn’t mean practicing self-care or pacing is pointless!  It just means that I accept that I can’t control every situation and I am not responsible for every setback.

Here is my new intention. Tomorrow, or the next day, or in a few weeks, I’ll have another flare up.  I will try to understand this as part of the natural cycle of living with my illness. I will be compassionate towards myself when my schedule goes off track.  I will focus my attention on the present moment and the next best thing I can do for myself.  I will draw on the tapas that I have cultivated for strength. And I will begin again.

[1] Salzberg, S. (2015). The fractal moment: An invitation to begin again. On Being. Retrieved Nov 10, 2016 from http://www.onbeing.org/blog/the-fractal-moment-an-invitation-to-begin-again/7589

[2] Lasater, J. (2007, Aug. 28). Cultivate your connections. Yoga Journal. Retrieved Nov 10, 2016 from http://www.yogajournal.com/article/philosophy/cultivate-your-connections/

[3] Chodron, P. (2012). The fundamental ambiguity of being human. Tricycle Magazine. Retrieved Nov 10, 2016 from http://tricycle.org/magazine/fundamental-ambiguity-being-human/