Mindfulness & Chronic Stress Response

Have you been told recently to start implementing mindfulness-based techniques into your daily routine? What is the first thing you think of when hearing this? Perhaps you think of the modern-day gurus that encourage mindfulness practices… or maybe you think of sitting down and meditating- paying attention to everything that is happening in your body mentally and physically.

Woah- that can seem like a scary thing to do when the mental chatter is loud, and the physical pain is prominent.

Personally, after dealing with chronic illness, when someone told me to practice mindfulness, my heart would beat a little faster and my stomach would sink. Just thinking about becoming aware of every single gurgle, ache, pain, and rash occurring in my body was overwhelming enough.

Perhaps you’ve already tried reading a book or completing a meditation that focuses on mindfulness practices. You tried to concentrate, but the brain fog was too apparent, and all a sudden you experienced frustration. If that wasn’t enough, all your symptoms- pain, inflammation, and headaches- all worsened. You thought, “Isn’t mindfulness supposed to be good for you?”

Let’s try to take a moment to step back from preconceived notions about mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness means you’re practicing open attention to the present. You are observing what’s going on without attaching a story or judgment to it. You are simply experiencing the moment and letting it pass. This is an important distinction to make from the mindfulness exercises that highlight focusing on body awareness and body scanning, which can sometimes be detrimental when you’re experiencing a flare-up or “die-off” symptoms. You may have heard the saying quoted by many practitioners including Dr. Joe Dispenza, “Where your attention goes, your energy flows.”

When you’re operating from the fight-flight-freeze or sympathetic response, it can be hard to pay attention to anything. The brain is responding like everything is dangerous- from the peanut butter on your apple to the crowd you got swallowed up by in the grocery store. Everything is being perceived as dangerous because the brain has been dealing with a physical trauma (toxin, chemical, bacteria), emotional trauma (a situation, memorized response), or mental trauma (an experience that causes symptoms of PTSD) for so long that it’s now trying to protect you from everything. So, when you begin to body scan and pay attention to the stress you’re experiencing, you may end up feeling worse.

Professional speakers, athletes, and business leaders alike find mindfulness extremely useful when it comes to functioning in a high-powered society. The important thing to remember is that there are different approaches to mindfulness, and when dealing with chronic illness, it’s important to use the approach that’s useful and beneficial to you. The most important thing is deciding to pay attention on purpose.

One way to practice mindfulness when dealing with chronic symptoms is through breathing. When you experience pain, take a deep breath in through the nose (for three seconds) and out through the mouth (for six seconds). Makes the breaths long and unhurried, so you’re able to focus entirely on the act of breathing. When you have that gut issue, breathe. When you are fatigued, breathe. When you experience anxiety, breathe. This is one helpful way to take mindfulness and add it to your daily routine without it impeding your lifestyle.

Mindfulness is a wonderful practice when operating from the growth-and-repair or parasympathetic response. Now, I implement mindfulness techniques in my daily practice that also consists of yoga, hiking, meditation, and of course, the daily dancing I do first thing in the morning to let my body know that today, we’re moving. These are all extremely effective practices when the stress response is not operating in a negative feedback loop. And even if you are in chronic fight-flight-freeze, remember, this is only temporary. Because of the brain’s ability to change, we can dissipate the chronic response in order to get to the place where daily mindfulness techniques are helpful rather than hurtful.

In the meantime, we continue to heal.

Happy Healing.

Lindsay

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