Illness can impact our mind but can our mind impact our illness?

Watching the Olympics these past two weeks got me thinking. Due to ongoing Covid restrictions, this year’s athletes were competing under very odd circumstances. With limited crowds and fans, how is this affecting their performance? Are they less motivated? Are they under less pressure? What is going through their mind? Then of course I realised that, while we as mere mortals would find this atmosphere so alien to our previous events, athletes perhaps are better mentally prepared for such circumstances. What I mean is, some athletes are mentally so strong they rarely wane under any situation. We as ordinary people, have become unwell and now find ourselves in our own very odd circumstances.

So how do we adapt to this new life and how do we ensure we perform to the best of our abilities? Well actually we have similar tools provided to us as athletes do. You see to us an athlete appears to be superhuman in not only strength, speed, agility and tact but also in mind. But are they really that superhuman? This is where Psychology comes in with its set of techniques to help keep the athlete focused on the right thing at the right time. But like us they get injured, suffer pain, illness, stress and depression. So, it is not just for performance in sports but psychology has its place in recovery from injury and illness too. We all are away from our much-loved sport and hobbies, we all feel in pain, we all have an unsure future. Life as we know it has changed and it’s a lot to cope with.

Relaxation techniques in the form of controlled breathing, mindfulness and meditation are all used by athletes and they are also recommended to ourselves. There are different guides to suit the situation but generally they all help us stay calm which keeps our muscles relaxed and loose, instead of tense and rigid causing more discomfort. They also keep our focus and stop our mind wandering to dwelling on the past and worrying about the future. They are very effective for lowering stress, anxiety and depression but they are also showing to be effective in managing pain related to conditions such as Fibromyalgia, Headache Disorders, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and the most widespread disorder Chronic Lower back pain*.

When we’re diagnosed with an illness, naturally our mind can go in a spin. What does it mean for me? Can I ever get back to my hobbies? How unwell will I become? What’s the treatment? Will I die earlier? What does the future hold? Medics can hopefully answer some these questions or at least give us some re-assurance of managing our symptoms but it won’t keep us from the worry, pain and our fears. Some Mindfulness can help focus our mind on the present. Not only what is happening today but what is happening right now, this very moment to the tiny detail of what can we hear, feel, smell, taste? Scanning our body to recognise each sensation. I’m not saying to retreat to your nearest meditation room immediately upon diagnosis in order to gain a hit of zen and all your worries will vanish. Of course not, we all need time to digest what we’ve been told, but you’ll learn to allow yourself to be upset and frustrated and then, in time, you can try and regain some calm. With practice we can learn to quickly steer our minds back to the present whenever needed, to move away from negative thoughts and calm our mood.

It is the same with chronic pain. How an athlete learns to deal with pain is taught by working through their reactions and emotions so they don’t fear pain as much **. Naturally when we feel pain we panic and cry out for help. That’s our brain in survival mode, it’s a natural reaction to get what we need to make it stop. It’s all about self-preservation and our strong instincts to stay alive and protect ourselves. Of course, if our doctors have told us our pain is not causing us actual harm and it’s part of a condition then calming this panicked mindset can only help us stay relaxed and in turn reduce any further pain.

This is exactly how it was when I had a bad back. Sciatica hurts and it can stop you dead. In bed I could hardly move from being scared it would hurt, I went into body protection mode, I stiffened up and it made moving more awkward and the pain even worse. The consultant in the hospital told me I couldn’t hurt my back and to get moving. Once I was told that moving is a good thing, I used controlled breathing to relax and mindfulness to recognise my physical feelings. I was determined to help myself as I got up and went about my day. Don’t get me wrong I wasn’t cured, far from it. But I managed to very slowly hobble my way through the streets of Lancashire and the more I moved in a day the more the pain eased. I still have back ache and when it hits hard, I have to take some time to get up and think my way out of bed to get moving which can ease it again.

Mindfulness based meditation teaches us how to cope with and how to lower constant pain as it detaches us from negative thoughts associated with pain and teaching us acceptance. It is all part of adapting to our new life. I won’t lie it does take practice, sometimes up to 8 weeks to feel any benefit and practice must be regular **. My Occupational Therapist recommended meditation to me and when a healthcare worker recommends a strategy, I am generally aware there’s some evidence behind it so here comes the science bit…

Well, what is actually happening in our brain then? There appears to be more and more research being done especially involving fMRI brain scans. One study done in 2009 explains the deeper a person goes into meditation or mindful state, scans show a wider spreading and greater strength of high frequency gamma-rays relating to a state of growing spaciousness and greater stability of awareness. In other words, we are in a content state doing something skilful and with ease ***. Another 2019 study shows us that mindfulness-based pain relief results in lower levels of pain. Here, scans display increased activity in the Thalamus, Primary Somatosensory regions and deactivation in the Posterior Cingulate Cortex *. Ok so I don’t know what these areas of our brain do (I’m not a Neurologist) but the point is these studies are trying to determine the areas which are related to pain to develop therapies which can better target pain. Once we know where these areas are, then perhaps we can manipulate it, right? Hopefully. They also go on to say and I quote… “long-term mindfulness practice can lead to significant increases in pain threshold values and lower pain sensitivity”. This is the bit we all need to know and if evidence suggests we can improve our symptoms, then it has to be worth a try.

So, there is method to the madness but please remember all of us are different and what works for some does not always work for another and we must find the right therapy for ourselves. I do hope you find some comfort in this week’s blog and I wish you all a much calmer weekend.

Namaste day!

Side note: I was that slow walking when sciatica hit, I was once over taken by a geriatric in a Zimmer frame, I was equally both embarrassed, I was half their age, and impressed at the skill and speed they were moving.

References

* Zeidan, F., Baumgartner, J. N., & Coghill, R. C. (2019). The neural mechanisms of mindfulness-based pain relief: a functional magnetic resonance imaging-based review and primer. Pain reports4(4).

** Price, I. (2018). Head Start: Build A Resilient Mindset So You Can Achieve Your Goals. Pearson Education Limited.

*** Hanson, R., & Mendius, R. (2009). Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom. New Harbinger.

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