Tuesday, December 22, 2015

How Mindfulness Helped Me Through a Health Crisis

     by Dr. Linda Miles 

How Mindfulness Helped Me Through Serious Illness
Even though I'd been practicing mindfulness for many years prior to my illness, its power became especially clear to me 15 years ago, when I was struck with a virulent strain of pneumonia. As I waited for yet another daily chest x-ray during my seventh day in the hospital, I knew I was dying. My husband is a doctor, and although he couldn’t bring himself to tell me the prognosis, I could read the signs. I felt my consciousness fading as my body began shutting down. I also overheard a conversation among the medical professionals working on me about my kidney failure, lack of oxygen, and the alarming blood work results they had just received.

Although my body was crashing, I felt a sense of inner peace and gratitude for my life. Fortunately, I was only 51 years old and had maintained good health prior to this point. It was a long struggle, but I eventually recovered. Despite the medical crisis, I maintained a mental state of inner peace and calmness during most of my illness. Using a practice of mindfulness, I was able to accept the seriousness of my illness while finding the strength to overcome it.

My practice of mindfulness prepared me to accept what was real in the present moment and refrain from comparing myself to those who were healthy and productive. I learned that when I compared myself to people who I had set up as the "ideal," I rejected myself. I believe that my practice helped save my life because I avoided situational anxiety and instead was able to concentrate on healing. While I was able to accept my state with calmness, do not confuse acceptance with giving up. It is often the opposite. My acceptance of my infirmity saved my energy so I could meet my situation head-on. As John Kabat-Zinn writes, "You can't stop the waves but you can learn to surf.”

During my illness, I could have watched my condition deteriorate. I could have told myself powerful stories about impending death or attacked myself for my weakness. However, I didn’t dwell on the worst possible outcome because I knew from mindfulness training that these worst-case scenarios were merely movies in my mind. These negative movies were damaging and would only increase my anxiety, which would lead to elevated blood pressure, rapid breathing, and secretion of the chemicals adrenaline and cortisol that would put my body into a state of alert. I was already on oxygen and needed several visits a day from a respiratory therapist just to survive, so more rapid respiration and stress would have only further harmed me.

As my body was fighting for survival, I chose to focus my energy on healing using positive and loving thoughts. I deliberately asked about the lives of my caretakers and worked at connecting with others in a conscious way. I thought about my family and friends with appreciation and loving-kindness, and these thoughts triggered the secretion of dopamine and oxytocin, which are both calming and healing chemicals. I was not thinking clearly enough to question WHY I was connecting and focusing on thoughts of loving-kindness —- the thoughts and behaviors were simply an automatic response to threat based on my years of practice of mindfulness. Although my established daily practice of mindfulness had previously been under far less dire circumstances, it prepared well me for my health crisis.

Using mindfulness daily in my work and personal life had a cumulative effect. As Dr. Wayne Drevets, a neuroscientist, writes, “In the brain, practice makes permanent.” So, in addition to the benefits mindfulness produces in the here-and-now, it will also equip you to overcome bigger challenges you might face in the future.


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