First published by Positive Health Online Magazine, May 2009
Meditation and M.E.
Meditation has powerful applications for many forms of illness including M.E. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia and other stress related conditions. It is especially good for M.E. sufferers because it can be directly tailored to their current level of activity. From people who are bedbound to those who are getting back to working full time, meditation provides support in keeping the body and mind in the optimum healing state. I, myself, struggled with M.E. for eight and a half years, and meditation played a significant role in my own recovery. The inspiration to teach meditation to help others with this much misunderstood condition stems from this challenging period in my life.
The stress factor and M.E.
Stress is now recognised as being an important factor in M.E. and related conditions, both in events leading up to becoming unwell and in the myriad of distressing symptoms themselves. Meditation can play a significant role in the management of and recovery from these conditions because it works on so many levels. Not only is meditation well known as a powerful stress buster, working directly on the autonomic nerve system, triggering the i relaxation response, but it also provides a gentle means for self-development, addressing root causes in a non-invasive way.
When people clear a space to relax physically and mentally, they inevitably get more in touch with themselves and their own needs. Meditation provides a soft, fundamentally supportive structure in which this can happen. Embracing a philosophy of self-acceptance and non-judgement, meditation develops healthy levels of self-belief and self-worth. And the practice of ii mindfulness opens up an understanding of the bigger picture, facilitating those ‘light bulb’ moments where things fall into place – often taking on a different perspective and more positive light.
Dealing with the challenges of M.E.
To make a connection with something bigger, through the spiritual aspect of meditation, can be truly life affirming when dealing with the physiological and psychological challenges of M.E. All too often, the wide ranging distressing symptoms cause feelings of isolation and of being misunderstood. The world of an M.E. sufferer contracts as he/she struggles to manage debilitating levels of fatigue and to make sense of bewildering symptoms, ranging from hypersensitivity to noise, light, heat/cold, social interaction, (even thinking); to muscle pain, digestive disorders, mind fog, blurred vision, dizziness and heart palpitations. In a very real way the M.E. world becomes a much, much smaller and often frightening place, revolving around the illness and a desperate desire to recover. To feel part of a larger whole expands this world and brings about positive experiences that provide much needed support and the opportunity for change.
Providing a catalyst for change
At a basic level, it is experience that creates change. We can know for half a life time, for instance, what is good for us in theory, but this knowledge needs to be translated consciously, into ‘felt’ experience in the body, for real change to come about. This is because the body has its own system of learning – through a complex network of neural pathways, hormonal release and cellular memory. An integral part of the picture of M.E. is that the physiology of the body has got caught in a pattern of stress and has normalised it. In other words it has learnt to be in a chronic state of stress. We are by design, and thus by nature, creatures of pattern. This stress state compounds imbalances within all of its major systems, perpetuates the vicious cycle of being unwell and blocks the natural healing process.
Positive states consciously experienced during meditation can provide a catalyst for change. Meditation enables the body’s innate intelligence to recognise that it has choices, allowing it to explore and learn other ways of being, wherein its systems can rest, regain balance and flourish once again. In M.E. it’s as if the body has forgotten how to relax; meditation retrains the body how to ‘do’ relaxation. It teaches it how to naturally access an optimum state for healing, where energy normally used up by the M.E. system on maintaining the iii Stress Response is channelled instead into allowing the body to heal itself.
Creating skills for life
In the spring of 2008 I launched a meditation course with The Optimum Health Clinic, a leading U.K. clinic specialising in the treatment of M.E., whose integrative approach combines cutting edge psychology therapies with nutritional treatments. The course is called ‘Meditation For Life’, because it opens people’s lives up in a positive way and literally offers them skills for life. It teaches Resourcefulness Meditation* a soft, sensory based approach to meditation, particularly suitable for stress related conditions. The body-focused techniques take into account the heightened sensitivity/stress response associated with M.E. It teaches people how to live less ‘in their head’ all the time, and to establish, instead, a more grounded, comfortable relationship with their body. It encourages a more holistic approach to health-care by promoting a deeper awareness of the connection between the body, mind and emotions and their direct impact on health and wellbeing.
The course aims to teach meditation as a set of natural skills to:
- Engage with the present moment consciously, with acceptance, through practicing Mindfulness
- Calm and balance the nervous system through Grounding in the here and now
- Release tension, worries etc using intention, awareness and focus
- Gain awareness of the connection between body, mind and emotions, through developing cognitive and sensory perception
- Recognize, acknowledge and respect own emotional, physical and psychological needs through practicing Mindfulness
- Build self-worth through observing negative ‘self- talk’, practising compassion and non-judgement, and the use of positive affirmations
All of this supports recovery, and helps maintain general good health once re-established. The ground-breaking course takes the format of an interactive conference call, linking people all over the UK and from abroad. It enables people to learn meditations specifically to help in their recovery in the comfort of their own home.
Improvements in general well-being and stress levels
Post course questionnaires show that after just eight weeks of practising meditation techniques and philosophy there are significant improvements in general outlook, anxiety levels and stress management in M.E. sufferers. Students report they are able to be more positive about life and optimistic about their recovery. They feel that more choices are available to them, gaining in confidence and independence. Many are able to have more self-compassion and self-wisdom, learning to listen to their body’s needs and do things on their own terms. They feel less desperate to recover, trusting instead that recovery will come.
iv Grounding and Mindfulness have been two of the most popular techniques. Students notice they feel calmer, less wired, tired and anxious, and find it easier to let things go and relax. By learning to monitor their state they can turn off ‘worry brain’, stop negative thought patterns, and go at their own pace. One has managed to reduce the frequency of her headaches through clearing her mind. Another, reports recognising the importance of stepping back with his mind and of being less intense when doing things.
Generally, there are also improvements in emotional balance. Participants find they are more in touch with their feelings and have increased levels of self-awareness and self respect; one student speaks of having greater core strength and of being able to withstand knocks. Overall, there is more inner peace and less being driven by high self-expectations and the need to do.
Sleep patterns have improved for some, becoming deeper and more natural; in one case a student has reduced her sleeping pills dramatically. Some find they have less sensory over-whelm and that their energy level and zest have increased.
Meditating in a group rates high among the benefits for many participants. It creates a sense of community where buddies can be made and the sense of isolation lessens. The very nature of meditation, with its philosophy of compassion, non-judgement, Mindfulness and focus on relaxation, creates a safe space where the meditator can feel held and supported. This extends beyond the group to individual practice. The feedback speaks for itself:
Meditation participants’ feedback
“I am able to focus down into my body and become aware what is going on and allow it to be as it is. What a wonderful thing! I feel really happy. I am OK with who I am and where I am in my life. I know that the meditation has put me in a place of peace and contentment. I am looking forward to witnessing all the other benefits that may be heading my way from this daily settling of my mind.”
Pauline McLeod, London
“I could feel my body coming down several notches and that felt such a blessed, wonderful relief.”
Lucy Saunders, Bristol
“I felt so relaxed afterwards and quite surprised to feel energised. There was certainly an improvement in my sleep last night.”
Ann Hardwick, Hartlepool.
“l feel that it is going to be a significant part of my healing journey. It has helped me get out of the constantly anxious ‘tired but wired’ state I had been trapped in for a while.”
Di Good, Sussex
“I’ve finally managed to walk as far as the village post-box for the first time in years… I’ve been making so many improvements since I started your course, and am so much more relaxed, it’s wonderful.”
Kate G, Dover
“And now for a small miracle…..last Friday I went to Laura Ashley for the first time ever!!”
Carole Balfe, Grantham
“I am meditating one to two times a day and really miss it when I don’t get to. I feel the meditation techniques have been a huge influence of my recovering rapidly from ME.”
Gary Gill, London.
* Resourcefulness Meditation is a gentle, sensory based, non-religious form of meditation, developed by Linda Hall which can be especially effective with stress-related conditions or illness. (See website for details)
www.MeditationForLife.co.uk For information about the meditation group for people with M.E. developed with The Optimum Health Clinic www.TheOptimumHealthClinic.com www.FreedomFromME.co.uk For information about the Optimum Health Clinics work with ME and related conditions