When you’re dealing with joint stiffness, pain, and other symptoms of a chronic condition like rheumatoid arthritis (RA), you may not immediately think of turning to mindfulness practices to help ease your symptoms. However, studies have shown that incorporating mindfulness and meditation into your daily life can not only help ease psychological symptoms like depression and stress, but it can also help with physical symptoms.
“I have been doing a lot of meditation and it helps, especially at bedtime,” one myRAteam member wrote. Another said, “I now exercise regularly and meditate to keep my body relaxed.”
To find out more about how meditation can help contribute to wellness, myRAteam sat down with Dr. Ashira Blazer, a rheumatologist and assistant professor at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine’s division of rheumatology. Dr. Blazer shared information about how mindfulness can contribute to positive outcomes in people with chronic conditions, and she also provided a walk-through of a meditation exercise.
Stress management is so incredibly important, and we know this because our patients tell us all the time, “When I get stressed out, I get a flare.” There are a lot of biological reasons for that. There are also reasons related to just the stress itself.
We know that autoimmune patients can have secondary fibromyalgia, meaning that patients who have these inflammatory conditions can also get a chronic pain condition that goes along with it. One of the reasons why we develop that is because, as we try to treat ourselves to help with the pain, we tense our muscles. We're not walking the same way, and so what this is going to do is allow for tension to settle into the muscles. We’re tense, and we don't realize it.
That creates a feedback loop, because the tension causes anxiety. We're used to being tense when we're anxious, and so the mind-body connection can reinforce this pain. In addition, the stress of having poor stress management can lead to an increase in some of the body's inflammatory signals that precipitate flares in the first place.
I always say that pain is a combination of emotional and physical pain. There's the pain that we feel in our bodies, and then there's the pain that we feel emotionally. We are afraid of what we can't do, or we're afraid of pain that might happen in the future, and that anxiety just worsens the pain that we feel. So what we really need to do, especially in these very uncertain times and then with chronic illness — which can layer on to the uncertainty — is to train our minds to be in the present.
A lot of times, our minds are worried about the past or worried about the future. Maybe we've got depression, we've got anxiety, there are so many things we're going to do — our minds are darting back and forth from one thing to the next, and we forget how to be in the present. Meditation really allows us to take advantage of the fact that, in the present space, we have all that we need.
A lot of people think meditation involves going into some trance-like state, or they get frustrated with themselves because their mind wanders. Know that the mind is going to wander. This is why it's meditation practice — you are practicing.
Whenever your mind starts to wander and you notice it, say to yourself the word “peace.” And then bring yourself back to the meditation. Don't get frustrated with yourself. This is a time to be kind to yourself.
You also want to make sure that you're in a relaxing environment. You want it to either be quiet or you may want to have nice music — whatever is most relaxing for you. You can darken the room a little bit. Make sure that it's cool and that it’s an inviting environment. Some people like aromatherapy, such as lavender, for engaging the sense of smell.
When you're setting up for a meditation, you want to feel balanced in your body. So that might mean leaning back in your chair or lying flat, whatever works best for you.
Absolutely, yes. Exercising your mind is like exercising your body. You may not be able to do 20 pullups right away, but as long as you're practicing, your muscles are getting stronger. It’s the same with meditation. Over time, eventually your mind will wander less and less.
Meditation is being kind to yourself, so I recommend doing it at least three or four times a week.
It shouldn't take very long to do. You can just do it before bedtime if that’s easier. It only takes a couple minutes, and it does wonders for helping you regulate your mind, especially your anxiety.
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