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Managing Chronic Disease with Mindfulness

Managing Chronic Disease with Mindfulness

Written by SMH Rehab Clinical Social Worker Crystal Brooks, LCSW

If you or a loved one are living with chronic disease, then you know all too well the inherent ups and downs that come with long-term disease management. It can be challenging to stay on track, and patients often ask what they can do to improve their recovery and wellness outcomes.

In every case, my advice is to be mindful. Be present in the moment by making a conscious effort to stay focused on what is happening right now, and don’t let thoughts wander to the past or to the future.

There are many things in life we cannot control, but we can control how thoughts affect us. Mindfulness creates intentional cognitive control over what is happening in the present. This practice is even more important in supporting overall wellness as we continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic — and the accompanying anxiety or uncertainty that can rob our thoughts of positivity.

Mindfulness & Chronic Disease

Mindfulness is an evidence-based process shown to provide more contentment with life, better stress management and increased self-efficacy, while also improving overall mood and expectations. These outcomes are fundamental in managing chronic disease because they lead to better health, decreased blood pressure, healthier eating habits and better sleep.

Try these tips to start being more mindful and enjoying better health. 

The Power of Positivity 

To engage in positive thinking, we first have to be aware of all the negative thinking we do. Count how many times a day you have a “negative” thought, such as “I never get this right” or “I won’t be able to do this.” (You’ll likely be surprised by the tally and just how much negativity rules your thoughts.) 

Next, when you have a negative thought, replace it with a positive one, if possible. This takes time and practice, but eventually, you’ll find it gives you control over the “picture” you paint in your mind about your chronic disease — and life in general. For example, change “I’m terrible at this” to “I am really working hard at getting better at this.”

Be Present in Your Plan 

Being "present” means participating in what is happening at this minute, focusing your thoughts on only what is right in front of you. Being “present” also invites you to be aware of all your senses in their relation to a situation. 

People living with chronic disease typically have numerous medical appointments to manage, appointments that can become boring and predictable. Choosing to be mindful allows you to experience each appointment for the incredible opportunity that it is to connect with someone supporting your health. Be attentive. Listen to what the professional is saying. Use your voice as a powerful tool to state your thoughts or concerns. Stop thinking about what is happening later in the day. Focus on what is being said at that moment.

Mindful Eating 

Managing chronic disease also requires dietary adjustment. Every meal, therefore, is special as it helps you care for the disease. It can become way too easy to eat on "auto-pilot." Instead, look at food as a prescription for health.

Most of us take to heart the doctor’s advice for medication because our mind is trained to believe it will “fix” what is ailing us; but, we may scoff at changing eating habits because we’re accustomed to the comfort they provide. 

Be mindful of food for its benefits to heal your body as well. Look at what you are eating, revel in its colors, taste and nutrients. Each meal is an opportunity to enhance your health.

Mindful Sleep 

Because we spend 25% to 30% of our time asleep, sleep habits deserve our attention. 
For better sleep, use these tips: Let your mind rest before sleeping. Turn off the television 30 minutes before bedtime, and stop using your cell phone to feverishly scroll social media right before your head hits the pillow.

 Visual imagery also can help when used to create a “peaceful” and inviting sleeping space in your mind. Everyone’s idea of what constitutes a relaxing sleep space will vary, but I imagine a big bed, with clean white sheets, a lavender smell, soft pajamas and low lighting. Whatever it is, imagine it and try to create it, whether real or simply in your mind.

Breathe, Just Breathe

Breathing exercises are the best way to hit the “reboot” button. It seems so elementary, but the power of taking a deep breath is so often underestimated or forgotten. 

Throughout the day, I have to remind myself, "Take a deep breath.” Then I count to 4, exhale and count to 5. Then, do it again.

As I breathe, I take notice of my body starting to relax. I feel the sensation of my chest moving in and out. I notice how the stress begins to leave my body. 

This type of active, intentional relaxation is key to managing stress and stopping negative thought patterns. It should be a daily part of any chronic disease management plan.

Remember that no one is perfect, and we all stumble at times. Hopefully, these tips can help you find your center again — as they have for me in managing my own chronic disease. 

As an SMH Inpatient Rehab Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Crystal Brooks focuses on health education and counseling. She specializes in mental health and stress management for those with chronic illness and their families. Her passion to help for those living with chronic disease is rooted in her own experiences living with chronic disease.