If you're living with a chronic illness, you're in the right place.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

You Should Totally Meditate

4:26 AM Posted by Tiffany Taft , , , , ,
So, have you tried meditation?  Because it's AMAZING.  It's a simple and effective way to fix essentially any problem you have.  You just need to breathe and clear your mind and your issues will simply fade away.  That's all there is to it!  Just breathe and clear your mind and your issues will vanish.

Can't concentrate?  Meditate!

Got pain?  Meditate!

Falling behind at the tech office?  Meditate!

Failing your class?  Meditate!

You name it, meditation can fix it.  And it's EASY.  Just ask anyone who's tried it.

I've asked people who've tried it. Turns out it's not so easy, it doesn't fix everything, and many people give up on it too soon because they feel like they can't do it.  But if you Google "meditation benefits" you get 500 health stories about how good it is for you and how you're missing out if you don't meditate on the regular.  Yet very few of them actually get into the weeds of learning this skill.  

That's right, meditation is a skill.  

I recommend relaxation to every person I see (with a couple exceptions) and meditation falls under the "relaxation" umbrella, obviously.  With how mainstream meditation has become, most people have at least heard of it and I sometimes get a blank pause or subtle (or not so subtle) eye roll: 

"Yeah I tried that and it doesn't work for me."

When I dig deeper, the vast majority of the time people a) gave up after about a week, b) didn't have any guidance, c) were under the idea that meditation is simple and rather natural, you just need to tap into it, then felt bad about themselves when they couldn't, or d) started it during a peak shit show in their life.

Of course it didn't work.

Meditation has been around for a couple thousand years now.  There are people who dedicate their entire lives to perfecting their ability to reach a state of Zen mastery.  Roll in the United States with our quick, easy, fad-based solution process and we bastardize the whole thing.  Kind of like Yoga.

Seriously, hot yoga?  WHY?

When I broach the topic of having my patients learn relaxation, including meditation, I use one of 2 metaphors:

If you hadn't run a mile in your life and I sat here and said "ok what I want you to do is go home and tomorrow run a marathon" you'd think I was out of my mind.  It's the same thing with my asking you to learn these relaxation skills without any time or training.

Anyone suggesting that you can simply go meditate, especially when you're feeling extra stressed, is like me saying "hey, you never bench pressed more than 5 lbs?  Here's 300.  Let's GO!"

People seem to like those analogies, so I'm sharing them with you.  I'm also going to share some other tips about getting started with a relaxation routine.  Because I do think regular relaxation, whether it's meditation or some other form of mind-clearing-body-relaxing exercise, is vitally important to everyone, but especially those of us living with a chronic medical illness.  

When you're starting out, DO:
  1. Use an app or a YouTube video or recording of someone to guide you through the relaxation.  It's easier than trying to do it on your own.  There are an abundance of resources, just watch out for the weird ones.
  2. Accept your mind will wander.  Usually within about 30 seconds of starting.  And it'll go to random things like "need to buy ketchup" or "remember when you farted in 8th grade algebra? THAT was embarrassing." This is expected, normal, and should subside after a few weeks of regular training
  3. Pick a normal "down time" for you.  For most, this is in the evening before bed.  This is also a time when some people get more anxious because they start reviewing things when the distractions of the day are over.  There's no right time to practice, so find what works for you.  Preferably not while driving 80 mph down the expressway, though.
  4. Practice at least 4 times per week.  Daily is better, but I realize we all have shit to do.
  5. Be aware you might notice something called "rebound anxiety" which is normal within certain degrees.  This is usually a sign you're more of a shallow, chest breather so when you switch to deeper, belly breathing it feels unnatural.  This will go away with practice.  If you feel immense anxiety or panic, that's a different story but is very rare (affects less than 5% of people).  Seek guidance from a professional if this continues to happen.
When you're starting out, DON'T
  1. Only try to use relaxation exercises during times of peak stress.  Trying to deep breathe, when you don't regularly practice deep breathing, in the middle of a panic attack isn't going to help and could make the panic worse.  If your life is constant stress, try to find times when it's even slightly lower to practice. 
  2. Give up after a few tries because it feels like you can't get into it.  The odds are rare that you can't get some benefit from regular relaxation.  Even if you can't be a Zen master, taking stress down even a couple pegs is good for you.
  3. Assume meditation will fix [insert problem] immediately.  It may not fix what you're trying to fix much at all.  But it will likely show benefits perhaps in places you didn't expect.
  4. Get hung up on "doing it right" especially if you have a few practice sessions where you barely relax, if at all.  There may be nothing more ironic than worrying about relaxing.  Let any practice sessions go that don't do much and try again the next day.
The good news is after a month or so, meditation will feel rather natural and easier than when you started.  You may be able to relax more quickly, just by clearing your mind and taking some deep breaths for a few minutes while looking out the window at work or school.  This, to me, is the whole point of all the training you do.  You practice practice practice so when your boss yells at you or your kid's teacher calls to tell you little Johnny pulled the fire alarm, you can easily calm yourself down because meditation won't be a foreign idea to your body.  It's supposed to be portable and subtle enough to do almost anywhere, any time. 

The other good news is actual structural changes take place in the stress centers of your brain after about 8 weeks.  I liken this to the Hulk shrinking down to Bruce Banner. These changes endure even if you stop meditating for a while. And if you start up again after a long break, it's easier to get back into it than when you started.  Kinda like muscle memory.

However, I'll share my last metaphor I use regularly with you.  You don't stop brushing your teeth after you go to the dentist and they say "No cavities!" So why would you stop meditating after your stressful life event is over?

I like metaphors.

I also like good technology to help make this easier.

If you're looking for an app to use, I recommend these but there are many other good ones.  Some are free and the paid apps all have a free trial period before you commit:
  • Stop, Breathe, Think
  • Mindfulness Coach (By the Dept. of Veterans Affairs)
  • Calm
  • Breathe2Relax
  • Buddhify
  • Headspace
Happy meditating!

--Dr. T2