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We all know that stress can exacerbate the symptoms of a chronic illness. But often so many things that cause us stress are out of our control, making it hard to simply lead a less stressful life. Instead, I have tried over the years to develop better strategies for coping with stress.
I started meditating before I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, around the time that I started a job that I knew would be stressful for me. I was amazed by how quickly it helped me better handle stress and anxiety. It doesn’t get rid of my anxiety, but it does give me one more tool in my toolbox that I can use to calm myself down in stressful moments.
What is mindfulness meditation?
Mindfulness is simply being aware of the present moment, in an open, nonjudgmental way. While the concept is simple, practicing it is often difficult. For example, as you are reading this, are you fully aware of yourself in this moment, or is part of your mind busy thinking about what else you need to do today, judging yourself for not making more time for things like meditation, or worrying about something that happened earlier? If you are doing any of these things, it is completely normal, and meditation is not going to make you able to magically stop doing this. What it can do is help you to recognize when you are getting wrapped up in your thoughts and bring you back to the present moment.
You don’t need anything special to get started with meditation. You can meditate while you are lying down, sitting, walking, or doing the dishes. You can meditate for a minute, ten minutes, or an hour. All you need to do is bring your attention to something, whether it is the breath, the sounds you can hear around you, or the feeling of your feet as they touch the ground. Try to pay attention in an open-minded, nonjudgmental way. If you find that you get distracted by thoughts or something happening around you, that’s ok. Simply recognize the distraction and return to the breath, or whatever it is you are focusing on.
The more you practice this during times that you are not stressed, the more accessible it will be to you during stressful moments.
How do I get started with meditation?
As I said above, you don’t need anything to get started meditating. You can simply begin. But if you are just starting out, you may find it helpful to set up a formal meditation practice and use guided meditations. I meditate for ten minutes every day after I take a shower (I shower in the evenings, so for me showering and meditating is a nice way to wind down before bed).
There are many meditation apps and websites available. Below are some that I have tried. This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are a lot of resources out there, and many are free or offer free trials, so try a few and see what you like. Most offer both silent and guided meditations of varying lengths.
Mindfulness app: Free with in-app purchase options. A good resource for getting started.
Calm app: Free with in-app purchase options. Offers guided meditations on varying topics, with soothing backgrounds and nature sounds. I used this a lot when I first started meditating.
Buddhify app: $4.99. Offers guided meditations on a wide range of topics. I found this one a lot of fun to play around with. One of my favorites is called “Now,” a five-minute meditation under the “Just Meditation I” topic.
Headspace app: $12.99 per month (after a ten-day free trial). This app has meditation “packs” ranging from ten to thirty days on topics like happiness, anxiety, and pain. This is mostly what I use now. Although it is expensive for an app, the pack structure really keeps me meditating every day.
UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center: A website with free guided meditations in English and Spanish.
What if I want to learn about meditation in greater depth?
For a deeper dive into mindfulness, including its origins and scientific research on it, I recommend the books and guided meditations by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. I first heard about meditation during a yoga for anxiety workshop at my yoga studio, where someone recommended his books.
I have read two of his books: Wherever You Go, There You Are, which is meant to “provide brief and easy access to the essence of mindfulness meditation and its applications,” and Full Catastrophe Living, which is a much more detailed guide to meditation for people dealing with illness or stress, based on his eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program. The first book was a great introduction to the subject, while the second book and corresponding CDs helped me to work through his program on my own.
If you are interested in MBSR, many organizations from hospitals to yoga studios offer programs based on his course. If you are in the DC area, I have heard good things about the MBSR course at Georgetown University Hospital.
For me, meditation isn’t a replacement for medical care, therapy, exercise, or any of the other things I do to take care of my body and mind. As I said at the beginning, it is an extra tool that helps me deal with my social anxiety, my illness, and the stresses of everyday life. It is something that I continue to practice each day. Even though I have been meditating for six years, there are days when I lie down to meditate for ten minutes and realize I have spent the entire time thinking about my to-do list or just daydreaming. That’s ok. There are still moments when my anxiety builds and I forget everything I have learned. That’s ok too. Because in some of those moments, I am able to take a deep breath and bring myself back to what is happening in the moment, and that has made a big difference.