This short guided meditation can be a useful way to help clarify your values. Having chronic pain and illness sometimes interferes with us living by our values, or even remembering what they are. I find it useful to re-clarify what they are for me so that I can keep making the most of it, and I hope you can too!
Also, I just launched a side-business as a meditation teacher. If you’re interested in 1:1 classes online and self-paced programs online, check out my website – Aligning Mindfully. I also started a second YouTube channel for Aligning Mindfully with 5 minute meditations on it.
One of the most effective practices I do in order to better cope with physical pain and other sensations of chronic illness is the body scan. The research also supports it being helpful. Interestingly it’s also been used as a meditative practice for hundreds of years (possibly longer) to help cope with physical sensations. While it can be a bit scary for chronic pain/illness warriors to go inside, the benefits can be well worth it. This practice is also great because you can totally do it lying down (as long as you’re not at risk of falling asleep). This versions is half an hour long, so if you’re not quite up to doing it that long yet, check out my meditation channel for the shorter version.
I feel a little bit of unease writing this post because I don’t want to give the impression that I think it’s completely possible for everyone to do this. In fact, prior to my own personal experience, I thought this was highly unlikely if not nearly impossible even though I’ve read about others doing similar things (reducing ANA, reversing illness, stopping illness progression, etc.) through a lot of the same methods I’ve used. I only started with lifestyle changes in order to reduce symptoms and general distress so that I could do more values-based activities. All of what I did was with the guidance, help and advice of amazing holistic healthcare professionals – my naturopath, my psychotherapist, my physiotherapist(s), my chiropractor(s), and my massage therapist(s). My primary care/general practitioner/family doctor (however you want to say it) and my rheumatologist(s) supported my lifestyle changes but never advised me on them. They deal with medications, and frankly that’s fine. I also want to say, my intention has never been to go off any medications. I like an East-meets-West approach to healthcare. All that said, here’s what I did (in order of appearance):
Stress Reduction – I learned a lot of coping skills to reduce my stress from my psychotherapist and have had regular acupuncture sessions with a naturopath for several years (minus 1 year where I didn’t have benefits).
Tied in with the above, regular meditation and eventually yoga practice. I continued to reduce and manage stress through these means. Mindfulness in general can really help with anxiety, depression, and has been shown to reduce pain in many, many people, across many, many studies. I currently meditate 20 minutes (minimum) per day and do yoga 4-5x/week (between 20 minutes to 1 hour each day).
Exercise – my exercise routine began with some work with a personal trainer who worked with autoimmune disease in the past, and then going to the gym 3x/week. When the pandemic hit, I began working out at home with some basic body-weight strength training exercises. I currently alternate strength-training with exercises given to me by my physiotherapist and chiropractor. On top of that I walk around 10,000 steps per day. I find that it works best if I pace by splitting it up with breaks and doing the same amount of activity each day. My physiotherapist and I are working on building up my strength so I can do more and longer hiking (currently I can do up to 1.5 hours, once or twice/week).
Stretching – I’m giving this it’s own category because it’s not ‘exercise’ and yoga, while can be a great stretch, is much more than that. I do several stretches daily that have been given to me by personal trainers, naturopaths, physiotherapists, chiropractors, and massage therapists. I stretch every part of my from my jaw to lats to wrists to legs to back to toes. I probably spend about 15 minutes just on stretches each day.
Diet/nutrition – this is something I struggled with for a very long time. I was recommended paleo diets and AIP protocols and this and that and I struggled to stick to any of them. So I made my own protocol/diet by just paying attention to how I was feeling after eating different foods. Then I eliminated what doesn’t make me feel good. I describe my current diet as “gluten-free pesca-vegan” because I mainly eat fish/seafood and then a vegan diet (no dairy) and gluten-free. (I probably should cut down sugar more and reduce alcohol a bit more but I’m getting there). I’ve been on this “diet” since last November. What’s made it easier for me to stick with is actually that I’m cognitively flexible with it. What I mean is, if I’m out and there are no (or very limited) options for this way of eating, I just eat whatever. If I’m at someone’s house and they serve meat or gluten or whatever, I eat it. This happens at most once/week and often less than that.
This is just my experience. I’ve been able to go off of one medication entirely, one medication was reduce to “as needed” (granted I supplement CBD instead daily – 10mg), and my rheumatologist reduced one medication a few weeks ago from 2000mg/week to 1400mg/week. Despite my lower ANA I do still have some symptoms – a bit of inflammation, some pain, but overall it’s a lot better than it used to be.
Have any of you found a difference with lifestyle changes?
Keep making the most of it everyone!
Always seek help from qualified healthcare professionals before making any lifestyle changes.
Only do this practice if it is safe for you to do so (as determined by a physician). If you are already feeling dizzy, you don’t have to engage in the steps to make yourself feel dizzy, engage with how to be more okay with the sensations.
Sometimes we can’t control the sensations in our body (as we warriors know), and yet it causes us less suffering to just let the sensations be than to try to push them away or get upset that they are happening. That’s where I find these willingness exercises to be helpful.
Also, please note the disclaimer at the beginning of the video.
The difference between the media’s version of self-care and healthcare’s version of self-care is huge. In the media we see bubble baths, spa days, “me time,” wine nights, and girls trips. In healthcare we talk about activities of daily living – showering, getting dressed, eating nutritious meals, doing light exercise, etc. I mean, I’ll admit that I definitely engage in all of the media’s version of self-care as well (well, I prefer solo trips to girls trips, just sayin’). And that’s fine. It’s totally all well to do all of that. As a person with a chronic health condition, I find it more beneficial to make sure all of my ADLs are done on a regular basis. Why? Because it helps not only my physical health (I’m literally more mobile when I do them), it also helps my mental health (mood is better, anxiety is less). Yet it can be hard to do these activities when we’re feeling low, when we’re super anxious, when we’re in a lot of pain. The thing is, doing them can help with all of these things.
Sadness and grief are common emotions to experience when dealing with chronic pain and illness. Illness grief consists of grief of the loss we once had. (Here’s a podcast episode about it). When sadness is particularly strong, depression can set in. Finding effective coping strategies is important for all chronic pain/illness warriors. This meditation is one that can be quite helpful.
We all know that the majority of the research says exercise = less pain. Honestly, I’m a supporter of this idea. Why? Because it has literally worked for me. I’ve managed to get off one medication, which happened when the only major lifestyle changes I had made were daily exercise (strength and cardio/waling) and daily meditation (plus yoga 2-3x/week). No more Lyrica for me! Now that doesn’t mean that I no longer have pain. It’s just more manageable. I notice that when I don’t exercise, my pain actually increases. Of course, this all seems totally backwards to our brains., mine included. When exercise was initially presented to me as an option for reducing pain, I was like “no way I’m going to do that! I’ll be in more pain.” Then I tried it and the rest is history.
The thing is, even if you believe that exercise will help (and I’m aware that some of you don’t believe it, and that’s okay)the problem becomes, how do we reframe our minds so that we can actually start to engage in some physical activity? There are a way different ways we can approach this (or use all of these ways, depending on what you need). The very first thing I do is connect with my values. Why is this important to me? What values will I be living by? For me, when it comes to exercise this is often aligning with values of health, self-care, and independence. They might be the same for you, or totally different. The second thing I do is to just looking at my thoughts. I ask myself, are these thoughts helpful or unhelpful? Are they taking me toward the life I want to live or away from it? Then it’s helpful to create some distance from them. This can be anything from naming the story I’m telling myself, to speaking the thought aloud with the phrase “I’m noticing I’m having the thought that…”, to placing the thought on a leaf in my mind and watching it float down a stream.
At this point if I notice any sensations of anxiety or another emotion, I try to make some room for those. Maybe I send my breath into that area, or remember it’s normal to have anxiety, or drop an anchor which involves allowing my emotions to be there. By this point, I can usually do whatever activity it is I’ve decided I need to do (so in this case, exercise). While exercising there are a few more things I do so that I can improve my attitude. Firstly, I make sure my movement is mindful. I stay with the sensations of the movement, the smells in the air around me, what I can see and hear, all while exercising. This can be done on a walk or while doing strength training. You could also try yoga as a form of mindful movement that allows for stretching and exercise as added benefits. All my stretching in general is also done mindfully. I also make room for sensations while exercising. DO NOT exercise if it’s actually causing you extra physical pain. A little discomfort though is completely normal. I might do a quick body scan to check in with myself and make room for physical discomfort. I definitely use my noticing self to step back and just notice if it’s actually pain I’m feeling or if it is just discomfort that comes from exercise.
Lastly, I commit. I started out just going to the gym 3x/week. During the pandemic I built it up to strength training at home and going for walks to get fresh air and yoga a few times a week. The point is, you can start slow. And it’s probably better to if it’s a big change. You can also work with a physio/physical therapist, kinesiologist, occupational therapist, or personal trainer to help you get started (I worked with my physiotherapist, chiropractor and a personal trainer when I started). Here’s a podcast episode about exercise for chronic pain. So hopefully, this gives you some ideas on how to improve your attitude toward fitness with chronic pain. Until next week, keep making the most of it!
In this short exercise, we work on developing our “noticing self” in order to help create some perspective. The “noticing self” can be extremely helpful to develop when you have a chronic illness and/or chronic pain. Rather than get overwhelmed by our sensations or try to get rid of them, it can help us live more effectively with our current, present-moment experience. If you have questions or comments about this, feel free to comment on the video and I’ll try my best to answer. I did do a podcast episode on this concept back in the day, here’s the Youtube link.
I was reading an industry magazine put out by my association (British Columbia Association of Clinical Counsellors) and this issue was heavily focused on mental health for chronic illness, which I was obviously excited about. In it there was a 1 page article/ad for a book about BRAIN Foods, or which foods are specifically good for mental health. I noticed some overlap with foods that are good for autoimmune disease as well, so I decided to do a little more research and try to figure out which foods would be good for both. While having this knowledge can definitely help my clients, it is also helpful for myself.
Before I get into what I’ve found as overlap (not everything does overlap to be clear, there are a lot of foods that came up for one or the other), I want to state that a lot of this depends on what kind of diet you follow. Someone who does AIP vs. Paleo vs. Keto, etc. will all look at this list and find things they can or cannot eat. What I’ve found works for me is to just cut out foods when I notice they don’t make me feel well. So I don’t eat gluten or dairy or meat (except fish) because those are the main things that bother me. However, knowing what can have more benefits from the list of things I do eat is helpful to know. I also want to say, that I am not perfect, nor do I try to be. I went to my brother’s wedding in another city, and while I did try to eat from my go-to list as often as possible, there were times (like at the wedding itself) where I did indulge in dairy, meat and gluten (I surprisingly didn’t hurt too badly after). I personally find it easier to stick to my diet (or rather, way of eating) if I don’t put pressure on myself to be perfect all the time (when I cook for myself I really do stick to it though).
All that being said, here are the overlap mental health and autoimmune foods I found from several lists and articles:
Fruits, such as blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, etc. (basically all the berries) – I love berries
Vegetables, such as broccoli, kale, and cauliflower – broccoli is often a staple for me
Fish, such as salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines – all of which are high in omega-3s and salmon is my fave
Nuts and seeds – sunflower seeds specifically came up on a list and I was like ooh reminds me of playing softball as a kid.
Sweet potatoes – literally another staple for me
Healthy fats, such as avocados, olive oil and coconut oil – I usually cook with avocado oil and I love avocados
Turmeric – my former naturopath recommended turmeric tea, which I find to be a lovely way to have more of it.
Green tea – I go through periods where I drink a lot of green tea
Dark chocolate – pretty much the only “snack” food on the lists and honestly, I got used to the taste (though I still prefer milk chocolate)
Whole grains – again, not something I eat anymore, but it’s definitely a better option than “white bread,” etc.
Coffee – I was surprised by this one, and I do love me my morning coffee. I do recommend no coffee after 2pm though as it can drastically affect sleep.
So, while you don’t have to eat everything from this list, it is probably helpful to try to include some of these foods regularly to improve brain functioning, decrease depression (depression is linked to inflammation in the brain much like AI is linked to inflammation in the body), and decrease illness symptoms. It can also be really helpful to practice mindful eating – check out my guided version here.
I love food, so hopefully this also helps you to make the most of it!
Learning to make room for physical pain sensations has really helped me lead a more fulfilling life and has enabled me to do more of the things I want to do. A big part of this was utilizing my mindfulness practice to make room for these sensations. If you have chronic pain or a chronic illness that causes you sensations you don’t like, starting these types of practices can be very helpful for many people. That way you too can keep making the most of it!