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How Mindfulness Benefits Me as a Woman With Chronic Illness

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If you’d have told me a year ago that I’d be regularly meditating, I would have laughed. Me, I would scoff, logical, scientific, reasonable me? But meditation and mindfulness are not exclusive of logic and science. In fact, the former are very much supported by the latter.

I started getting migraines last year. My first proper, debilitating migraines, complete with sensitivity to light and aura, causing me to lose my ability to speak and see bright shapes behind my eyelids. I’d have to lie down in a dark room, unable to read or even look at my phone. And while migraines are never pleasant, having to disconnect myself from the outside world taught me a very important lesson – that I can do it.

But what is the science surrounding meditation? The obvious answer is that it relaxes you. You slow down your breathing, you calm your heart rate down, and you focus on the simple act of just being there. If I’m being honest, one thing that turns me away from yoga is the meditation side. I once went to a class that involved a lot of chanting and invoking what I can only describe as airy-fairy imagery. This works perfectly for some, but it’s just not for me. For someone who loves science and facts, a huge part of me loves the fact that the Headspace app gives very matter-of-fact explanations of how and why we do certain things.

With Headspace, there is some imagery involved, scanning down the body for example, but I do it in a scientific, almost medical way. I use it to consider my fibromyalgia symptoms, a chronic illness I was diagnosed with almost two years ago, which is categorized by widespread pain and fatigue. I scan down my body and pause at each twinge of pain or discomfort, note it and move on. I’ve found that this method allows me to register the pain, but also to accept it as a part of me, of my life, something I have to find a way to live with.

Fibromyalgia can also stop you from getting restful sleep. A few months ago, I decided to start meditating before I go to sleep. I set a timer on my Echo, so I can spend some time reading or listening to an audiobook in bed, then I open the Headspace app and spend 10 minutes meditating. Taking the time to slow down my breathing, think about how my body feels, what’s troubling me, how I can deal with everything going on around me, has become an important part of my nighttime ritual. Almost every time, I fall asleep before the meditation session is over.

People with chronic illnesses may understand what I mean when I say I am sick of people telling me to try various things in order to “cure” my fibromyalgia. Taking turmeric or swimming or cutting out dairy or using crystals – I don’t believe any of these things are able to cure a chronic disease. There is no scientific evidence to support that. Meditation will not cure it, neither will Pilates, but they do help me manage my symptoms.

Mindfulness is becoming more popular, and it’s easy to see why. As a woman in her mid-20s, I’m part of the millennial generation, the one that is struggling to get on to the housing ladder, being underpaid and overworked, expected to be on call 24/7 by demanding employers. We’re more environmentally aware, attempting to re-use and recycle, be conscious of our carbon footprint, attempt to use cruelty-free products and eat organic food, or go vegan. We take these things on our shoulders, trying desperately to do our bit, turn our gaze outwards and see how we can change the world for the better. I’m also a woman living with a chronic illness, something that is unlikely to ever go away.

This isn’t a pity party – it is what it is – but I use meditation as a method of dealing with such truths, the truths that we all live with every day, both in a personal and a societal sense. It’s important to be mindful, and take time out of your day to recharge, to center yourself in the moment, listen to your body and your mind. It’s important to use the silence to hear what you couldn’t hear over the hubbub of everyday life.

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Getty Image by Antikwar

Originally published: January 30, 2018
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