A mindful approach?
New research is showing that if we are able to adopt a mindful approach to difficult experiences and situations in our lives, it can help us cope. In deed it can help us to feel better both emotionally and physically. Mindfulness and acceptance doesn’t mean that we give up in despair – it is more a question of coming to a state of acceptance that this is how things are, at least at the present time.
As children we learn that when we fall over, to get up quickly, dust ourselves down and move on. If we cut our finger, a quick kiss on the damaged digit by a loving adult, and we no longer feel the hurt. As adults we fight off cold symptoms and try to keep going as long as we can. But what happens when chronic illness strikes and none of those techniques works? Illnesses such as fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue, back pain or rheumatoid arthritis where we have to deal with pain and all kinds of restrictions to the way we live our lives. Should we keep fighting, or totally give up? Scientific research is showing us that perhaps neither strategy is as useful as finding a way to accept where we are.
The importance of being able to adapt, adjust and accept one’s situation appears to be extremely important but people use a variety of different coping strategies. Sim and Madden in 2008 found that in a large group of fibromyalgia sufferers, there were four different patterns of perceiving and managing symptoms: Struggling (people managed their everyday life by mobilising their physical and psychological strength to fight their pain and fatigue), accepting and adapting (people managed their everyday life by planning their activities on the basis of their assumptions of limitations), in despair (people despaired as they could no longer cope with their pain and life situation) and giving up (people had given up many activities of everyday life and felt that their symptoms dominated their life.) They found that accepting and adapting had the effect of lowering emotional arousal, improved sleep quality and lifted mood. This also seemed to have a positive effect on pain perception and other physical symptoms and thus improve functional abilities, so creating a domino effect. It appears that there are clear physical as well as emotional benefits from accepting difficult circumstances.
A mindfulness and acceptance
So what does acceptance really involve? Taking a mindful approach, acceptance means that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future. Acceptance is, in many ways, a synonym for mindfulness. When we are mindful, when we give our full attention to whatever is happening now, and can do so without the usual storytelling, pushing, pulling, and judgment then we are here – in acceptance.
But this is not where we typically are. It is rare that we give our full attention to what is happening now. We give partial attention. The rest of our attention is somewhere else. It might be on something related to what is happening now and in that case we find ourselves pushing against and pulling away from the experience. We have opinions, judgments, and desire to make things slightly different (or very different) or to have things to continue as they are. Or our attention may be somewhere else thinking about what’s for dinner, or reviewing a past conversation. Wherever attention is, it is not here fully experiencing what is present in this moment.
There is a basic choice we have in every moment of our existence. I can be with whatever is happening or I can want to change it. Our felt need to change is automatic, reflexive, and, perhaps even, compulsive. It may be relentless, like a comfort seeking missile, we seek to tweak, adjust, and modify each circumstance. Or, in the rare moments when things feel perfect, we worry about losing the experience. Acceptance is not acquiescence or resignation. We find ourselves in many situations that are not ideal. In some of these situations, there is a reasonable action that we can take to change the situation. If you are sitting in a room and it is hot, get up and open the window, if that is a feasible thing to do in that moment. There is no particular virtue to remaining hot when a simple action can change that. However, there are many situations in life where a simple action is neither feasible nor possible. You are outside waiting at a bus stop and it is hot. There is nothing that you can. You are stuck waiting. In this situation, acceptance is an option; resistance is another option. When we resist we are complaining about the situation. “I hate being hot.” “I wish it was winter” (and when it was winter the wish was for summer). The complaint creates a boundary of tension between ourselves and the experience we are having in that moment. Dissatisfaction, anguish, even outright suffering can arise from that tension. It takes energy to maintain that tension. Our sense of “me” is pushing against the reality of the situation. “I don’t want this.”
Mindfulness and ill health – some thoughts
The effect of acceptance of illness on the quality of life in people with different illnesses often find that those who accept (rather than deny, fight with or give up in the face of the illness) not only feel better psychologically but their physical symptoms improve. A very recently published Polish study of patients with chronic heart failure (Monika Obiegło et al, 2015) looked at the relationship between acceptance of illness and quality. Of the 100 patients studied, those with low levels of acceptance of illness based on scores from a questionnaire also had significantly lower energy, increased pain, lower mood, poorer sleep, more social isolation and lower mobility. They concluded that the extent a patient accepts their chronic heart failure diagnosis has been shown to impact on their quality of life.
Acceptance does not mean passive resignation
Resignation means giving up because you’ve decided that there’s nothing you can do about your situation, whereas acceptance simply means that you accept that your situation happened. It doesn’t mean that you like what’s happening or that you don’t wish it were different, but once you give up the resistance and denial, you can take the energy you were spending on struggling and use it to decide how to respond or what to do next. In this way, acceptance can be liberating. Acceptance sounds easy but isn’t. It takes significant strength and motivation to let go of how you think things should be or how you wish they were, and to work wisely and effectively with your reality, especially when you don’t like it. Accepting can be the hardest and bravest thing you can do. It’s a process. It doesn’t happen all at once. Like an onion, you peel off one layer of change at a time. The changes you often are faced with will stretch and challenge your ability to adapt. You may have to let go of, or even say goodbye to some parts of your life, either for a time, or perhaps permanently. This might involve grieving the loss. As you make the changes your illness requires, you can become more flexible and creative in adapting to change.
For more information on recovery from stress related illness click here
For more information on mindfulness, go to my Mindful Self Help page.
To read other articles about mindfulness, click here and here.
Need more advice and support
If you are struggling to accept difficult circumstances including chronic illness, or would like to learn more about mindfulness, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.
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Monika Obieglo – The effect of acceptance of illness on the quality of life in patients with chronic heart failure. European Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing, online January 8, 2015.
Sim, J, Madden, S. Illness experience in fibromyalgia syndrome: a metasynthesis of qualitative studies. Soc Sci Med. 2008 Jul;67(1):57-67