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Taming pain and stress, one breath at a time - a guest post by Megan

meganby Megan, a guest blogger who writes at Objects in Mirror are Closer than They Appear (she's @mirroredlens on Twitter)

Editrix Jenni wrote about mindful imagery, meditation, and fibro back in April, but some recent scientific studies offer even more reasons for ChronicBabes to consider the benefits of meditation.

I’m sure we’ve all had well-meaning friends, family members, and even doctors encourage us to reduce the stress in our lives in order to improve our chronic illnesses. (And I know I’m certainly not feeling any less stressed when I read a story about research like this that suggests my stress is more likely to make me sick since I’m a woman. Ugh!)

While it would be great to feel cool, calm, and centered all the time, it can be hard to feel any of those things when the voices of pain, anxiety, and fatigue are blaring like a bus horn in your head (and body). So what’s a ChronicBabe to do?

Well first, take a deep breath. No seriously. Take a deep breath. Let it out. And then another. And pay attention to the sound and sensation of your breath as you inhale and exhale. See if you can do that for about thirty seconds. The internet and I can wait.

What you just did there is the basic component of mindfulness meditation. It’s that easy. Stop, breathe, listen.

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues at the University of Massachusetts began to research the effects of mindfulness mediation on chronic pain in the late 1970s, discovering that meditation training seemed to help patients cope with their illnesses and manage their pain better. More recent studies have suggested that even a short period of meditation training (anywhere from 80 minutes to 8 weeks) can offer extraordinary benefits in reducing sensitivity to pain, decreasing anxiety, and improving the brain’s response to stress.

Now I can already hear you saying, “But Megan, the people in these studies meditated for 45 minutes to an hour at a time! For days or even weeks! How will my 30 seconds make a difference?”

For the answer to that question, I turn to Buddhist monks. Why? Because these guys have the whole mindfulness meditation thing down. And do you know what they recommend? To start out by focusing on your breath for just a few moments at a time. 30 seconds. Stop. Then repeat.

Because if you immediately try to sit down and keep your head clear for 45 minutes, your mind will inevitably wander and you’ll start beating yourself up about not being any good at meditating and staying in the moment. And then you’ll stop doing it because it feels like just another one of those chores that medical researchers tell you will be good for you (Exercise more! Eat more vegetables! Take the stairs!), and is clearly possible when you’re enrolled in some study and being paid to do it every day but who has time for that, and it just ends up being a frustrating PITA.

So just focus on your breath for 30 seconds. Repeat throughout the day—even at your desk, in bed, or during the moment you have to stop on the stairs to catch your breath. Work up to 5 minutes, 10 minutes, maybe 20 minutes. Slowly, you’ll start to feel the frantic voice in your head pipe down a bit. And while meditating is not going to magically make that sink full of dirty dishes disappear (this is meditation, not telekinesis) it could make you happier, help you kick a bad habit, or improve your coping skills. And it might even change your brain.

Check out this NPR story from 2007 for more on the experiences of chronic pain patients and mindfulness meditation. It includes an audio recording of a ‘body scan’ meditation exercise.

You don’t need a mantra to do mindfulness meditation, but when I start to feel stressed, I try to remember this simple quote from Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh: “Smile, breathe, go slowly.”

Posted: 11/7/2011 in Cool Tools  |  Also posted in: Coping

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