Many of us living with chronic health challenges have become interested in learning how conscious intention and mindfulness may be able to improve health and well-being. Frustration, sadness, fear and dread are just some of the feelings to which we can all too easily succumb if we don’t actively and consciously train our minds to recognize the thoughts flitting through them as insubstantial, mental constructs—secretions of the brain.
The Temptation to Put One’s Life on Hold
While healthy people are out and about in the world, working full-time jobs, spending time with family, or simply having fun, many people with chronic medical conditions are not well enough to live this way. It is a challenge to live with the vicissitudes inherent in a life where you often do not feel well, and a life that revolves around always struggling to feel better. Those with chronic conditions face a reality that often entails some combination of unremitting fatigue, malaise, pain, or disability. They often can work no more than a few hours a day (if at all), and it can sometimes be difficult to maintain relationships with spouses, family, and friends or parent their children. Not only can these limitations lead to ruined careers and family life, they present challenges in terms of involvement in the kinds of activities that give life meaning.
Anyone who has been down with a bad cold has had the experience of needing to put life on hold for a few days. It can be inconvenient, and stressful; while we may need to stop and rest, the many demands on our time rarely cease. But at least we know that we’ll be back on our feet soon. For the chronically ill, though, there is no end in sight. If they wait for things to improve before engaging with life, as tempting as that idea can be (“Once I feel better, then . . .”), they could wait forever.
If you are living with a chronic medical condition, you cannot afford to put your life on hold because at this time in history, modern medicine has no cures for most chronic diseases. The truth is that, for many of us, our physical condition is not likely to improve. And let’s be realistic: even in healthy people, the normal process of aging means that chronic health challenges eventually touch almost everyone.
I have been living with two forms of arthritis since my early thirties and with other medical conditions since childhood, and I’ve found that putting my life on hold every time I don’t feel well only makes me feel depressed. Over the decades I’ve lived with chronic medical conditions, a few colleagues have recommended to me on occasion that I try antidepressants. I am pleased to say that I have never taken any antidepressants, and that I have found a much more effective path to greater happiness. The idea of “anti”—trying to get rid of something undesirable—is never as effective as going toward one’s goals and values, unless perhaps we’re talking about antibiotic, antifungal, or antiviral medications. A healthier alternative is to live with conscious intention and mindfulness, which allows us to be in control of our lives.
Some people react with extreme frustration or anger when they have to keep missing out on vital work, family, and recreational activities. A small segment of the chronic illness population is able to just roll with the punches. I am not one of them, which is why I became motivated to spend years researching evidence-based forms of mind training. Those discussed in this blog will be the ones for which there is the greatest abundance of evidence for efficacy.
In addition to working with the mind, there are other forms of help for those of us living with chronic illness. One exceptional organization is Advocacy for Patients with Chronic Illness.