1 in 5 people in the developed world live with chronic pain. 1 in 3 live with a long-term health condition (LTC). 2 out of 3 adults will experience mental illness over their lifetime.
Advances in acute medical care are obviously welcome. However, many diseases that used to be fatal and are now treatable, leave people with long-term chronic health conditions and pain to contend with. Consequently, these conditions are increasingly common and can have a major impact on individuals and their families. They also exert a major burden on health care, with approximately 70% of the UK health budget now spent on managing chronic conditions.
This prevalence is in part fueled by an ageing population experiencing complex chronic health conditions, along with an increasing number of people suffering illnesses related to sedentary lifestyles, such as obesity and diabetes. Mental health among young people, and the population at large, is at crisis point.
Clearly there is a huge amount of human suffering associated with all these conditions. New approaches are urgently needed and teaching people ways to take responsibility for their own health and well-being, in partnership with health professionals, is increasingly recognized as an important public health initiative. This is known as self-management and I’ve spent the past two decades developing mindfulness-based self-management approaches to pain, illness and stress.
Mindfulness is a new modality in health-care. Through cleverly blending ancient wisdom traditions of the East, particularly Buddhism, with modern neuroscience and psychology, a series of simple skills can be learned by anyone wishing to harness the power of their mind.
In 2015 there was an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) looking into the ways mindfulness could be incorporated into the education, criminal justice, workplace and health systems. This APPG distilled a good working definition of mindfulness as:
“Mindfulness is best considered an inherent human capacity akin to language acquisition; a capacity that enables people to focus on what they experience in the moment, inside themselves as well as in their environment, with an attitude of openness, curiosity and care”.
I developed my own definition particularly applicable to those experiencing the suffering associated with chronic pain:
“live in the moment, notice what is happening and make choices in how you respond to your experience rather than being driven by habitual reactions”.
We all have the capacity to train our minds so our thoughts and emotions can become positive tools for enablement and creativity to overcome so many ills of our age. My speciality is Mindfulness-based Pain Management (MBPM) which is a training in mindfulness to ease the suffering associated with pain and chronic health conditions. I co-founded Breathworks to teach this approach to others.
The Mindful Nation report made the following comments about the value of mindfulness in physical heathcare:
“Mindfulness training is a valuable complement to conventional medical care. It is a form of ‘participatory medicine’ by which the patient is enabled to develop their own understanding of their condition and draw upon their own resources for healing and care, often within peer-to-peer groups. This is a new model of healthcare which it is widely believed will be increasingly significant in the future, as healthcare needs continue to grow. There is good evidence that MBIs [Mindfulness Based Intervention] can help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety for people living with long-term conditions such as vascular disorders, chronic pain and cancer, and promising evidence is emerging for the helpfulness of MBIs for other long-term physical health conditions.”
Once we have the mind working with us, rather than against, then we can optimise our health and well-being even if living with chronic health condition of any sort.
Here is a short mindfulness exercise to help you get a sense of this by using the natural breath in the body as an anchor for the mind. This means you can become aware of your mental and emotional tendencies with some objectivity and perspective, no longer being victim to them. You can see that ‘thoughts are not facts, even those that say they are!’ and learn to look ‘at’ thoughts and emotions rather than ‘from’ them, seeing them as transitory events. This overcomes the strong habit most of us have of being over-identified with the content of passing thoughts and feelings.
If your condition allows it, sit erect but relaxed in a straight-backed chair with your feet flat on the floor. If you cannot sit, then lie on a mat or blanket on the floor, or on your bed. Allow your arms and hands to be as relaxed as possible.
Gently close your eyes and focus your awareness on the breath as it flows into and out of your body. Feel the sensations the air makes as it flows in through your mouth or nose, down your throat and into your lungs. Feel the expansion and subsiding of your chest and belly as you breathe. Focus your awareness on where the sensations are strongest. Stay in contact with each in-breath and each out-breath. Observe it without trying to alter it in any way or expecting anything special to happen.
When your mind wanders, gently shepherd it back to the breath. Try not to criticise yourself. Minds wander. It’s what they do. The act of realising that your mind has wandered – and encouraging it to return to focus on the breath – is central to the practice of mindfulness.
Your mind may eventually become calm – or it may not. If it becomes calm, then this may only be short-lived. Your mind may become filled with thoughts or powerful emotions such as fear, anger, stress or love. These may also be fleeting. Whatever happens, simply observe as best you can without reacting to your experience or trying to change anything. Gently return your awareness back to the sensations of the breath again and again.
After a few minutes, or longer if you prefer, gently open your eyes and take in your surroundings.1
Vidyamala will be speaking on this topic at The Mindful living Show on 16th March 2019 at the Business Design Centre in Islington. talkhealth Community receive £5 discount on conference passes here.
1 From ‘Mindfulness for Health’ by Vidyamala Burch and Danny Penman. Pub Piatkus, 2013