Have you ever found yourself in the middle of reading a sentence and realized that your mind had wandered off, lost in a memory of what happened earlier in the day or pulled into your to-do list for tomorrow? If so, you are in good company: One Harvard study found that our minds wander almost 50% of the time, on average.1
It is no secret many of us struggle with living in the moment. We all ruminate on the past and worry about the future. But for people who are living with a chronic disease, distractions may be magnified by the challenges and daily stress that often come with dealing with their disease. Mindfulness is a tool that has been proven to help manage the stress that is common in those living with a chronic condition, such as idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), a rare and serious lung disease.2,3,4,5
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a therapeutic intervention that trains attention and awareness. The intention of mindfulness is to experience the present moment and “wake up” from an automatic pilot mode, where our lives are racing by. It is a practice of being conscious of the present moment in a kind and open way and learning to relate to negative emotions with greater clarity and compassion. In this way, mindfulness, or kind attention, may help people with chronic diseases handle the difficult emotions they face.2,3,6,7
Mindfulness has been shown to increase immune functioning,8,9 improve pain management,10,11 and enable better sleep.12 Research has also shown that mindfulness may specifically help people living with chronic illnesses live in the present and reduce anxiety, depression, or other negative emotions.2,3
The key to practicing mindfulness involves three pillars: Intention, Attention, and Attitude.13
- Intention is knowing why you are practicing mindfulness. Reflect on what you truly care about by asking yourself: “What is important to me?”
- Attention refers to the capacity of the mind to pay attention in the present moment.
- Attitude refers to the mindset of your attention, one which is patient and kind.
When practicing mindfulness, you are aware of thoughts, physical sensations, and how you are feeling in a particular moment.
Handling negative emotions through mindfulness
As human beings, we experience a full spectrum of emotions, which follow a similar trajectory: They arise, peak, and pass, like a wave. Usually, emotions only last for a couple of seconds before fading away. Yet, we often feel overwhelmed by them and mistakenly believe they will never pass. Those living with a chronic disease may feel negative emotions more frequently than the average person because of the additional challenges with which they are faced. Living with a chronic disease may result in ruminating on the past, and, for example, people may question whether they did something to cause their illness. They may also worry about the future, wondering what will happen when their symptoms worsen or if they will be a burden to their families.6
By bringing mindfulness to our emotions (and the thoughts that may underlie them), we can begin to see them and their temporary nature more clearly. We can notice that our emotions are impermanent, rising, and passing. So, as fear arises, or loneliness or sadness, we can learn to accept and respond to these waves of emotion in a productive way and are not as overcome by them.
Using mindfulness as a tool for people with IPF, a rare lung disease
Much of my training in mindfulness was working with people living with chronic diseases, including people living with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, or IPF. IPF is an irreversible and unpredictable interstitial lung disease that affects about 100,000 people in the U.S.14,15 Many people have not heard of IPF, and it often goes misdiagnosed or untreated.16 IPF makes breathing difficult and causes permanent scarring damage to the lungs.14 The uncertain nature of the disease can be difficult for patients, physically as well as mentally.
While the experience of living with IPF is different for each person, many people with the disease express feeling difficult emotions, such as frustration and anxiety. Understandably, maintaining a positive attitude can be difficult for people with chronic diseases such as IPF. People living with IPF can be hard on themselves and find it difficult to come to terms with their diagnosis. It is important for people with chronic diseases to recognize what they are feeling and accept it, instead of trying to push painful thoughts and emotions away, which actually amplifies them.
Mindfulness can aid in doing this, as it has been shown to increase sense of meaning, joy, and connection, which can help combat the isolation and sense of hopelessness that often accompanies living with a chronic condition.7
A program to help people with IPF
Research has shown mindfulness can be a powerful tool for those living with chronic illness, and I am excited to have partnered with Genentech to develop a new resource called “Exhale: Mindfully manage your IPF.” Exhale is a program developed specifically to help people living with IPF take a proactive role in their care.
A key component of this program is a set of videos tailored for people with IPF that explain mindfulness and provide practices and relaxation techniques that may help them. The videos include practices on how to handle difficult emotions, identify and focus on what is most important, and find the motivation to face challenges and maintain a positive mindset by living in and appreciating the present moment. These videos are easy to understand and follow along with for those who may be unfamiliar with mindfulness and for those who may have limited mobility. The videos may also be helpful for caregivers or loved ones of people with IPF.
If you or a loved one is living with IPF, I invite you to explore the resources available on the Exhale website. I encourage you to try out the mindfulness practice videos. I hope they empower those living with this challenging condition to actively participate in their IPF care, provide them with a sense of control, and help them enjoy each moment just a little more.