By Clair Dempsey
Doctoral Student, Centre for Advances in Behavioural Science, Coventry University
Proud Endometriosis Warrior
Why use mindfulness to help manage symptoms of endometriosis?
We all know that living with endometriosis can be not only physically but also emotionally draining. The causes of psychological stress include coping with pain, fatigue, and the side effects of medication, not to mention delays in diagnosis and poor treatment by healthcare professionals. Coping with some of these realities might become easier with a mindfulness practice!
Mindfulness, as defined by world-renowned expert Jon Kabat-Zinn, is the practice of “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” In other words, mindfulness is about being aware and noticing your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations in the current moment. A key component of this success is paying attention to the positive aspects of the present moment while being aware of and accepting the negative aspects.
Mindfulness has been used in healthcare settings since 1979, when Kabat-Zinn developed the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course for patients with chronic health problems. Research has shown that mindfulness meditation can improve pain symptoms and depression symptoms, thereby improving quality of life (Hilton et al., 2017). Potential effects on the immune system include: reduction in inflammatory processes, increase in cell-meditated defense parameters, and increase in enzyme activity that guards against cell aging (Black and Slavich, 2016).
At the foundation of mindfulness practice is meditation. Meditation is the practice of sitting still and focusing on your experience in the current moment – usually by focusing on your breathing. It’s a common misconception that in order to meditate you need to clear your mind completely- this isn’t possible. Instead, observe any thoughts or emotions that come up and then bring our attention back to the physical sensation of the breath. Mindfulness can also be less structured; even daily activities themselves can be made mindful. It all begins with nurturing self-compassion. People who are self-compassionate realize when they are suffering and respond to themselves with warmth, understanding, and by seeking connections with others (Neff, 2009). Mindfulness can help people combat the tendency tendencies to harshly judge or criticize themselves, which lowers their risk for anxiety and depression (Costa and Pinto-Gouveia, 2013).
So: how can you bring mindfulness into your life?
Find a mindfulness practice that works for you. The idea of giving your life a total mindful makeover may sound appealing but could ultimately be impractical. Figure out how you can fit mindful moments into your life. In-person courses, such as MBSR classes, effectively teach mindfulness skills. There are also online options, phone apps, or books, which may fit into your lifestyle easier. I recommend the Breathworks online courses or the app Headspace, and the University of Oxford’s Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World, based on their Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy course for recurrent depression. I started meditating by using the book Mindfulness for Health by Vidymala Burch and Danny Penman. I would also recommend books by Paul Gilbert, Mark Williams, Rick Hanson and Jon Kabat-Zinn. Whatever you choose, it helps to maintain frequency: pick a time and stick with it.
Take time to notice the pleasant. Our brains automatically watch for threats and danger; this is known as the negativity bias (Rozin and Royzman, 2001). Although humans were able to survive by staying alert in case of threat, this tendency also means that negative experiences have more of an impact on us than positive experiences. Since we automatically notice the negative, it can be a challenge to pay attention to and absorb the positive. One technique is to keep a gratitude diary. Each evening I ask my students to write down ten positive things they observed or experienced during their day. Some examples include: nature, a nice cup of coffee, a good conversation, even a funny YouTube video.
Make daily activities mindful. Instead of introducing new activities into your life, it might be easier to make regular daily activities more mindful. Again, this involves paying attention. Focus on one activity at a time. If you are watching TV or a movie just watch it– don’t pick up your phone, don’t talk to those around you. Simply absorbing one thing at a time is a great way to be actively but easily mindful. Focus on sensations when you have a shower or brush your teeth – really engage your senses.
Slow down, pay attention, and be present. We often go through life without noticing the details. We are creatures of habit; we walk into rooms without remembering the walk and why we decided to go there. Do you arrive at work and can’t remember stepping off the train or parking the car sometimes? This lack of mindfulness is called being on autopilot, and it can lead to feelings of stress and anxiety.
And again: be kind to yourself. Think of how you would care for a close friend or family member if they were suffering. Would you berate them? Or would you listen and offer comfort? Being critical of yourself will only leave you feeling miserable. Those negative emotions are not helpful and will not make your pain go away more quickly. Respond kindly to yourself!
Learning to be more mindful is similar to learning a new language or how to drive – it takes time and commitment but it can add so much to your life. We all lead such busy lives but I strongly believe that twenty minutes of mindfulness a day can lessen suffering, highlight the positive in your life, and increase your sense of well-being.
- Black, D.S. & Slavich, G.M. (2016) Mindfulness meditation and the immune system: a systematic review of randomised controlled trials. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Issue: Advances in Meditation Research 13-24 Costa, J. & Pinto-Gouveia, J. (2013) Experiential avoidance and self-compassion in chronic pain. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43, p1578-1591
- Hilton, L., Hempel, S., Ewing, B.A., Apaydin, E., Xenakis, L., Newberry, S., Colaiaco, B., Maher, A.R., Shanman, R.M., Sorbero, M.E. and Maglione, M.A. (2017) Mindfulness meditation for chronic pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Annals of Behavioural Medicine, 51, 199-213.
- Neff, K.D. (2009) Self-compassion. In Leary, M.R. and Hoyle, R.H. Eeds), Handbook of individual differences in social behaviour. New York: Guilford Press.
- Rozin, P. & Royzman, E.B. (2001) Negativity bias, negativity dominance and contagion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, Vol 5, No. 4, 296-320