November 04, 2022
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Design by Ryan Hamsher; Photography courtesy of Natalie Kelley
Welcome to Mindset Matters — a space to learn about the mental and emotional aspects of living with chronic illness. Mindset Matters is led by Nat Kelley, a certified life and mindset coach, and founder of Plenty and Well. For Nat, mindset work was the missing puzzle piece in her journey navigating ulcerative colitis, and she’s passionate about helping empower others in their journeys.
I truly see mindfulness as the root of mindset work. OxfordLanguages on Google defines mindfulness as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.” I’m sure what first jumps out at many readers is “bodily sensations” — don’t worry, we’ll get to that!
But first, I want to discuss why mindfulness is helpful with chronic illness. When we have chronic illness(es), it’s so easy to get caught up in the future “what-ifs.” Raise your hand if you’ve ever been just hanging out with a friend, watching TV, in class or at work, reading a book, taking a shower, or doing any other task when you suddenly had a major “what-if” thought intrude (my hand is raised!). They might sound like any of the following:
“What if I start flaring because I didn’t sleep as much last night?”
“What if the symptoms I had today suddenly turn into a full-blown flare?”
“What if I never find love in the future because of my chronic illness?”
Let me start by saying these what-if thoughts are valid, but they aren’t always necessary. What do I mean by that? Obviously, we’ve all had experiences with chronic illness that fuel these thoughts. We aren’t just pulling them out of thin air! It’s normal and valid to worry about flares and symptoms and relationships.
But these thoughts aren’t necessary in the sense that they don’t actually help prevent the flare, or “fix” the symptoms, or manifest the love of your life. Many times, they push us into freeze mode, where the fear simply paralyzes us, making us unable to take action to help the situation in the present moment.
This is where mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness is a way to bring us back to the present moment, which can help us better tend to our needs — mind, body, and soul.
I know the thought of being aware of our present moment — in which we may be feeling uncomfortable and painful symptoms — can be really scary. But I promise that achieving mindfulness in a way that feels safe and comfortable is possible. Here are a few tips for making that happen.
Social media portrays mindfulness in a very narrow light, and it’s easy to feel that if you aren’t meditating or simply sitting in silence that you’re “doing it wrong.” False! Mindfulness doesn’t have to mean meditation or breath work if that doesn’t help you feel aligned. Mindfulness is truly just a tool to bring you back to the present, which is so helpful with the many what-ifs and mental spirals that come with chronic illness.
Mindfulness for you could look like a walk in nature, reading poetry, baking, or even watching reality TV. Mindfulness can be anything that brings you back to the now versus spiraling into the future, even if that means a little dose of distraction.
Those meditations where you focus attention on each individual part of your body are not helpful to everyone. Who says they have to be part of your mindfulness routine? Not me! So, here’s your permission slip to get rid of them. Even if you do enjoy meditation as a mindfulness practice, it doesn’t have to include a body scan. You can focus on visualization, manifestation, gratitude, or whatever else. You’re allowed to be present and not hyperfixate on how your body is feeling.
For me, the greatest gift chronic illness has given me is a huge appreciation and acknowledgment of the little joys in life. Rooting myself in gratitude each day helps me further acknowledge these joys because living with chronic illness can sometimes make me feel like there isn’t anything to be grateful for. But when I dig deep and really open my eyes to what’s around me and create a daily gratitude practice, I’m able to find those little joys and gifts each day, which help me get through the tough seasons of my illness.
Being grateful for what’s around you now is a great, simple way to practice mindfulness. When I notice myself spiraling into the future, I pause and ask myself what I can see, hear, smell, taste, etc., right now that I’m grateful for. Being as specific as possible helps my brain land back in the present in a way that feels calm and gentle.
Most mindset professionals wouldn’t encourage folks to entertain the worst-case scenarios that live in their minds, but when you live with chronic illness, sometimes entertaining them is the only way we can get them to float away.
In fact, I bet that many of us have had some of our worst-case scenarios come true — whether those involved hospitalizations, medications failing us, flares starting at less-than-ideal times, etc. If you’ve tried all the tips above and are still struggling to stay present, try making a game plan for what to do if those what-ifs do come true.
Write up a little plan in a journal, in a Google doc, or in any other format that feels safe to you. If a flare starts on vacation, who will I contact? Where is the closest clinic? What emergency meds should I pack? How will I care for my body? Knowing your next steps if those what-ifs do come true will hopefully let you release those anxieties, so you no longer feel like you have to remain vigilant and hyperfixate on them.
Mindfulness can be a beautiful tool for chronic illness as long as you let yourself be flexible with what mindfulness looks like in your life.
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