Breathing. If you are reading this now, you are breathing. We all do it, but we don’t usually pay much attention. It will happen even if we don’t think about it, but what if we do pay attention to our breath? Mindfulness is about paying attention – to our breath and to what is happening in the present moment.
As a social worker in a neurology clinic I teach mindfulness practice with some of my patients and have facilitated a weekly mindfulness meditation group. While anecdotal, the reports I hear from those who practice mindfulness include improved mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. Using mindfulness, or present attention, allows people to manage racing thoughts, blame about the past, panic about the future, and to notice what is actually going on right now. In fact, mindfulness can increase the ability to recognize what is working or going well in your life.
Common complaints from people living with MS are related to the past and the future: Why me? How did I get this? What if I had (insert imagined panacea)? What is going to happen to me? What if (insert imagined misery) happens to me? While there is a place for these questions during the process of coping with a chronic illness, such questions can understandably cause fear, anxiety, and depression. Inviting presence of mind into this context can be an invitation to feelings of calm, gratitude, and even joy.
Mindfulness does not diminish or inhibit the ability to process the past or plan for the future, which can be helpful in moving forward with life in the context of living with a chronic illness. However, mindfulness can help decrease complete absorption in these other “time zones” that prevent us from noticing what is going on in the moment. Usually we believe we are paying attention “in the moment,” but what we are actually doing is layering our interpretations of what is happening on top of the actual experience.
What the Research Shows
In a study on “Mindfulness Training for Multiple Sclerosis” reported in Journal Watch Psychiatry, 2010, Jonathon Silver notes that people living with MS and symptoms of anxiety, depression, and fatigue demonstrated improved quality of life after an eight-week intensive training in mindfulness-based therapy.
“MS is an unpredictable disease,” said study author Paul Grossman, Ph.D. “People can go for months feeling great and then have an attack that may reduce their ability to work or take care of their family. Mindfulness training can help those with MS better to cope with these changes. Increased mindfulness in daily life may also contribute to a more realistic sense of control, as well as a greater appreciation of positive experiences that continue to be part of life.”
Mindfulness can also increase awareness of movement and improve safety for people living with MS, according to a pilot study in the UK. “Mindfulness of movement as a coping strategy in multiple sclerosis: A pilot study” indicates that training in mindfulness can not only improve psychological function, but improve balance issues as well. People living with MS who have balance or gait issues can be challenged by the demands of our culture to multi-task; if attention is divided it can often lead to injury.
Living with MS impacts the family system, so it is not only the person diagnosed who is impacted. However, the diagnosis becomes a new feature of an already existing relationship. It is up to each individual and family to assess the quality of their functioning and access existing resources to continue to improve their well-being as a whole. Researchers at the University of Queensland, Brisbane School of Psychology investigated the impact of mindfulness and acceptance on couples coping with MS and noted increased ability to adjust and a decrease in anxiety and depression, therefore improving the quality of the relationship.
Is mindfulness for me?
This is a question many people ask themselves, believing that if they have an active mind they will be unable to practice mindfulness meditation. Yet, mindfulness is not the absence of thought; it is the practice of not engaging the thoughts as we are used to in our daily life.
It can help to come to this new practice with a beginner’s mind, not needing to “get it right” or be perfect. Gentle kindness towards your own process allows the mindfulness practitioner to notice what is happening in the mind and body without judgment.
When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron (Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1997)
Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by John Kabat-Zinn (Hyperion, 1994)
Full Catastrophe Living by John Kabat-Zinn (Delta, 1991)
Meditation for Beginners by Jack Kornfield (Sounds True, Inc., 2008)
Fierce Grace documentary about Ram Dass
Free Meditation Podcasts: http://marc.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=22
Insight Meditation Society: http://www.dharma.org/
Kara Barton is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the USC Department of Neurology in Los Angeles, CA. She is part of the Center for Psychological Excellence (COPE) within the neurology department. She provides counseling and resources to patients and families living with MS and other neurological conditions. She and her colleagues believe in cultivating hope and joy during difficult times. Teaching mindfulness has become an integral part of her clinical practice.
(Last reviewed 11/2012)