Mindfulness and MS

25 January 2018

More and more people are extolling the virtues of mindfulness for dealing with the stresses and strains of everyday life, and some people believe it can be particularly useful for people dealing with long term conditions such as MS. But what exactly is mindfulness, and how you can you start trying it out? Justin Standfield, who was diagnosed with MS in 2015, explains how mindfulness helps him.

These days – possibly more than ever before – we can easily become so caught up with getting things done that we fail to just ‘be’ in the present moment. It doesn’t seem to matter whether we are working, at home, studying or travelling, alone or with others – so many of us are missing the beauty of life and we probably don’t realise how quickly it’s passing us by. Mindfulness is a response to this phenomenon and it’s based on an ancient practice of encouraging awareness, clarity and acceptance of the present moment.

My encounter with mindfulness began nearly 20 years ago, long before I was diagnosed with MS; I first learnt how to ‘do’ mindfulness meditation in Thailand as part of a short introductory retreat in Bangkok. Like many people, I’ve been a sporadic mindfulness practitioner over the years – I’ve had times when I’ve been totally committed to having a regular mindfulness practice, but on occasions I’ve also found that it has slipped lower on my life’s list of priorities.

Mindfulness isn’t pink and fluffy

Since my MS diagnosis in 2015, I’ve returned to it with a renewed commitment and have undertaken mindfulness teacher training so that I can share it with others. The mindfulness I practise and teach is a completely secular, non-spiritual approach that fuses together key elements from the well-known Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) courses.

I’ll admit, the way that some people package up mindfulness comes across as a bit esoteric and somewhat “pink and fluffy”, so here’s an everyday definition of mindfulness that might work for you – it’s:

A proven method of observing our thoughts, feelings and perceptions in a more helpful way

I’ve used the word ‘proven’ deliberately because there’s a growing body of research on mindfulness meditation and the benefits for people with MS are wide-ranging, particularly around symptoms such as fatigue, depression, anxiety and stress/distress.

Dealing with pain and managing worries

For me, it all starts with intention. Your intention is what you hope to get from practising mindfulness – for example, you may want stress reduction, pain or sensation management, greater emotional balance or something else. The strength of your intention helps to motivate you to practise mindfulness on a daily basis and shapes the quality of your mindful awareness.

My personal intention regarding mindfulness is twofold. Firstly, I use mindfulness to have an altered (dare I say better?!) experience of the pain associated with having the MS hug; most of my lesions are in my spinal cord so this symptom is one of my most troubling. Secondly, I want to have a more healthy relationship with my own thoughts about having MS – I suppose you could say I’d like to get my worries into perspective at times.

In terms of the MS hug symptoms, the main mindfulness technique I use is something called the Body Scan meditation. I know, it’s an ironic title given that anyone with MS will have been through an MRI scanner at some point! The Body Scan can be done sitting in a chair or lying down and it involves moving through your body (in your mind’s eye) and focussing on the experience in each area. It sounds counter-intuitive to focus on our body if we’re in pain, because normally what we tend to do is attempt to push away pain or deny it, or perhaps focus on it almost obsessively, hoping that in this way we will somehow control it or defeat it.

The point of the Body Scan is to develop an attitude of noticing our current experience without automatically being compelled to react to it – it requires an attitude of acceptance of ‘what is’, which can be hard at times. It’s important to note that this acceptance is not the same as resignation. Acceptance doesn’t mean ‘giving in’ at all. I’ve noticed that using the Body Scan meditation helps me to stop physically bracing myself against the MS hug and therefore this reduces some of the sensation.

A new way of seeing yourself

One of the most popular mindfulness meditations is mindfulness of breath. This involves focussing on your breathing and can be done in any position at all – the good thing about it is that you can even do it in public and nobody knows you’re doing it! I’ve found this to be a regular ‘go-to’ mindfulness practice that I use at times when I need to calm down my thoughts a bit or gain some psychological balance amongst the occasional worrying about the future with MS.

I think it’s important that one of the underpinning attitudes of being more mindful is that of non-striving, which is sometimes described as “trying less and being more”; this notion of acceptance can be a useful message for anyone with MS. This disease brings about some inevitable changes to how we live our lives, how we work, how we parent and so on. This particular aspect of mindfulness can help us to reclaim our lives by responding to the here-and-now present moment.

As Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it:

[Meditation] has no goal other than for you to be yourself. The irony is that you already are. This sounds paradoxical and a little crazy. Yet this paradox and craziness may be pointing you toward a new way of seeing yourself, one in which you are trying less and being more

Justin is Managing Director at Incendo, a personal and professional development consultancy that offers a range of mindfulness courses for organisations. Find out more at http://www.incendo-uk.com

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