How Meditation and Mindfulness Help Ease Chronic Illness

A novel study suggests that meditation and mindfulness can greatly improve the lives of people with chronic illness, particularly those with diabetes mellitus or coronary heart disease. Instead of worrying about the past or the future, patients begin to gently accept the limitations of their illness and focus on what is possible and beneficial in the present moment.

The study, published in Behavioral Medicine, found that patients who practice meditation and mindfulness experience better sleep and relaxation patterns and have a more accepting outlook toward living with a long-term illness.

Negative thought patterns, such as worry and thought suppression, are also greatly reduced. Thought suppression occurs when a person tries to stop thinking about a specific undesirable thought—often causing it to come back even stronger. This is the known as the ‘white elephant’ effect. (Try not to think of a white elephant, and you will probably picture one in your mind.)

For example, if a patient were to attempt to suppress thoughts of sickness and death, these thoughts would ultimately become more frequent and harder to control. Meditation, however, helps the patient move into a more relaxed state of mind, literally helping them sidestep the harmful thought. In other words, when the mind is relaxed, the brain doesn’t feel pulled toward negative thinking.

This peaceful state of mind is also brought about through mindfulness. As defined by the authors, mindfulness is being in a heightened state of present-centered self-awareness. This encourages non-judgmental observations of our emotions, bodily states, and other sensations, leading to greater mental well being.

Although long-term effects were not studied, the findings suggest that meditation and mindfulness may be especially helpful during the early phases of chronic illness or immediately after a negative event, when anxiety and worry are most severe.

Other studies suggest that meditation increases activity in the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS)—the part of the nervous system that reduces stress, improves blood flow, and releases digestive juices. Getting rid of extra stress is extremely important for the immune system, especially in a state of chronic illness. A relaxed state of mind (and body) creates favorable conditions for healthy cell regeneration.

Meditation also increases activity in the prefrontal cortex, the right anterior insula, and the right hippocampus. These brain regions help regulate positive emotions, awareness, and anxiety and also help control the immune system. In fact, when stimulated, these areas of the brain help the immune system function far more effectively—particularly important for a person living with chronic illness.