The impact of stress on our health cannot be under-estimated. It took me years to realise just how stressed I was, all the time, as a result of past trauma, social anxiety, perfectionism and basically being a bull in a china shop. This is still a work in progress for me, but I believe it to be hugely important for anyone with health issues, and to be honest, probably most people without health issues too. Some ideas…
Meditation is a means of transforming the mind. It can help to encourage concentration, clarity, emotional positivity, and an ability to see things as they really are (vipassana). Contrary to what many people think, meditation is not about switching off the mind or “turning off” thoughts. The mind thinks, that’s what it does. Rather, meditation helps you to learn the patterns and habits of your mind, become more in tuned with them, and learn new, more positive ways of being. With continued practice, meditation can result in deeply relaxing, peaceful and transformative states of mind.
There is no one way to meditate. There are lots of different styles and types of meditation, as well as lots of different tools to help you learn these techniques. I recommend trying various different styles and tools until you find one that feels right for you. If there are any classes near you, that would be a great place to start. Other great options are:
- Headspace – this is the app I would recommend to beginners. There is a 30 day free trial so you can try it out, after that it is £7.99 a month or you can pay yearly for a discount.
- Calm – costs £9.99 per month so this is not the cheapest way to access meditation. However, if you are a beginner looking for some good guided meditations, this one is great. There are lots of different categories so you can pick a meditation based on what you’d like to work with today. There are also options for “less guidance” and open-ended meditations, which are great if you are looking to transition towards unguided meditation practice.
- The Meaning of Life app – free app available for Apple and Android. These are meditations from Ashok Gupta’s “The Gupta Programme” (see Brain Retraining page for more information on this). However the meditations are not specific to chronic illness are are suitable for anyone. There are a range of themed meditations, each with a 10- and 20-minute option.
- Joe Dispenza meditations – available on his website. These are all aimed at people with chronic health issues and are based on his neuroplasticity approaches, which I discuss on the “Brain Retraining” page. They aren’t cheap and you have to purchase each meditation individually. However I do think they are excellent practices for anyone with a chronic health issue and because they are longer than most meditation apps, I find I can get into a deeper and more relaxed state of mind that I do with other guided meditations.
- Sudhir Rishi podcast – available on iTunes and possibly other platforms. This amazing man runs the Sampoorna Yoga training centre in Goa where I trained in 2016. The podcasts are mostly recordings of live meditations and Satsangs (or group meetings). It doesn’t get much more authentic than this.
- Kundalini yoga meditations and kriyas as described in “Meditation as Medicine” by Guru Dharma Singh Khalsa MD & Cameron Stauth. Another book entitled “The Eight Human Talents” by Gurmukh is also a good shout.
- Unguided meditation. Once you are familiar with meditation, I do believe that unguided practice tends to reap the most benefits. Learning to just be with yourself, with your mind and in your body, as it is in the current moment, is a very powerful tool, and I find that it is easier to get into deeper meditative states with unguided practice.
Trauma release work
I cannot say this strongly enough. If you are human, you have trauma. I used to think of trauma as referring to severe events like fighting at war or being brutally attacked. Trauma can be much smaller than that, and in fact, what might seem like a small event to one person can be highly stressful to another. Being bullied, being ill as a child, parental divorce, or any number of other events can create trauma which, if not addressed, can contribute significantly to long-term health issues.
The good news is, there are loads of fantastic tools available to help release the impact of past trauma. Please note that, although many of these tools are available through self-help formats, if you have severe trauma that you think has affected you badly, it is worth working with a practitioner who is experienced in this area to make sure you are safely held as you tackle this work.
- Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT or “tapping”). I was taught this technique via my work with the Women’s Wellness Circle. There are also books, youtube videos and online courses that teach this technique.
- Trauma Release Exercises or “TRE”. These are exercises that release trauma by activating the innate mechanism of shaking or vibrating, which is the body’s natural way of releasing trauma. Animals in the wild will violently shake after a traumatic experience such as being chased by a predator, but as humans we have been conditioned to suppress this mechanism. TRE helps to release this trauma and thus calm the nervous system. I came to TRE via Neurogenic Yoga, which is a special type of class that combines yoga movements (“asana”) with TRE, followed by a guided relaxation or yoga nidra. Neurogenic Yoga has been life-changing for me on my path to health.
- Somatic Experiencing therapy. Created by Dr Peter Levine. He has a book called “Waking the Tiger” that explains the therapy in detail, and a shorter book that has a much briefer overview of the theory behind the therapy, followed by practical exercises to work through (“Healing Trauma: A pioneering program for restoring the wisdom of your body”). Because this therapy doesn’t involve reliving past trauma in any way, I have found it quite safe to work through without assistance from a practitioner, but others may benefit from working with a practitioner. In the UK, they can be found via https://www.seauk.org.uk/
There are lots and lots of different ways of working with the breath to help calm the nervous system, reduce the impact of stress and thus strengthen the immune system. In yoga, breath practices are known as Pranayama. Here are some of the common ones for calming the nervous system (but there will be many, many more available practices than those listed here, so do experiment):
- Diaphragmatic breathing – simply breathing by using your diaphragm. In practice, this means that your belly will move in and out with your breath, while your chest will stay relatively still. Typical day-to-day breathing tends to come from the chest and so diaphragmatic breathing helps to deepen and lengthen the breath.
- Box breathing or square breathing – breathe in for a count of, say, four; hold for four; breathe out for four; hold for four. Repeat.
- Alternate nostril breathing – good guide here.
- Ujjayi breath – aka victorious breath; commonly used in yoga practices. A good guide here.
If you want to take breath-work to another level, consider HeartMath. This is a tool for changing the pattern of your heart rhythms, to achieve what is referred to as “coherence”; a state characterised by harmony in our mind, body and emotions (description taken from HeartMath website). There is a book that describes the HeartMath theory and techniques: “The Heartmath Solution: Proven Techniques for Developing Emotional Intelligence” by Doc Children & Howard Martin. You can also purchase technology from HeartMath that allows you to monitor your heart rhythms in real-time, giving you a form of biofeedback to train your heart rhythm patterns. I use their Inner Balance device.