How to Be Mindful When You Are Sick

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Meditation for Real Life

“It might seem crazy to want to be more conscious of illness and discomfort. Yet mindfulness — moment to moment, nonjudgmental awareness — may be exactly what your body most needs when you are run down and under the weather. Between feeling rotten, and the stress of managing responsibilities while fighting illness, we often compound our physical ailments with negative reactions, making us not just sick, but anxious about being sick, and maybe also resentful. Since stress compromises our immune system, becoming caught up in this way can slow down our recovery. Instead, aim to approach your illness with care, seeing things as they are, with acceptance and compassion.” — Mark Bertin, M.D., a doctor specializing in developmental pediatrics.

Don’t pretend to be happy that you’re ill. Just acknowledge that right now, this is how you feel, for better or worse. Remind yourself that it will change. Noticing your mental state, without falling into indulgence or self-pity, come back as best as you’re able to a sense of patience and kindness toward yourself.

Start by taking a few deep breaths, focusing on the subtle physical movements that follow along with breathing. If your illness makes breathing itself a challenge, consider focusing on your feet touching the floor, or the back of your legs on the mattress. Continue breathing naturally for a few minutes, or focusing on body sensations.

Notice whatever feels uncomfortable. As you do, aim to pay attention to that experience with less resistance, anger or judgment. Without being falsely upbeat, just note that it is what you are feeling right now. If there’s a sense of tightness around the discomfort, see if you can let go of the extra tension a little with each outbreath. Focus next on how you would comfort a loved one in the same situation.

Often these wishes are summarized in mindfulness practice through specific phrases – “May you be happy,” “May you be healthy,” “May you feel safe,” and “May you live your life with ease.” Without aiming to force any specific change to how you feel, focus on those wishes with each breath you take now, but for yourself. “May I be happy.” “May I be healthy.” “May I feel safe.” “May I live my life with ease.”

If this compassion practice leads to a sense of striving or craving for health, just note that feeling with patience, and then return to your mindfulness practice. Whenever your attention wanders, return to the phrases. Or if you prefer, follow your breathing, or note sensations in your body.

Let go of striving to fix anything for a moment, staying aware of both your illness and desire for relief, and return yourself to a healthy state of mind, over and over, supporting your body as it heals.