Chaplaincy

Finding Comfort When You Are Sick, Part 1: Coronavirus and Acute Illness

This week's blog has been written by Mindfulness Chaplain, Dr Kitty Wheater.

Two teddies in bed with tissues and hot water bottle

There is an established evidence-base for using mindfulness to work with physical pain and illness. Early trials of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction in the 1970s focused on chronic pain and psoriasis, and the programme continues to show good results for chronic pain and other long-term health conditions. Indeed, many people first discover meditation as they look for a way to live in the face of new diagnoses – seeking forms of reflection and attention that honour the shifting terrain of their bodies.

But what about acute sickness? The breath is usually one of our strongest allies in mindfulness practice. We pay attention to sensations of the breath to give the mind a place of respite, to train it to focus, and to attend with interest and beginner’s mind to what is familiar, invisible, and ever-present. When we are in fight/flight mode, with the mind attempting to fix and problem-solve, the fact that the breath breathes itself – whether it’s short or long, shallow or deep – opens us to the possibility that wisdom may lie in allowing life to breathe in its own way. The breath can therefore be a source of great steadiness in times of hardship; we can use it in meditation with sensations of pain, tension, and illness, knowing that these are not wrong, but an inevitable part of being human.

But if you have a respiratory illness, like coronavirus, the breath may be short, constricted, and painful. Rather than being an anchor for a spiralling mind, it may trigger only fear and anxiety. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the fearful mind will hoover up everything that seems relevant in order to get your attention. Things that you’ve read on Twitter or in the news; previous experiences of breathlessness and illness; and, if you have underlying health conditions, acute memories of previous health crises, will flicker through your mind at lightning speed. As they say to parents with small children, trust your instincts: if you think you need medical help, ask for it. There are ways of using your attention to work with fear and worry, but these are by no means a substitute for medical advice if you are unwell.

With medical advice in hand, awareness itself may be flitty, sleepy, unfocused, and fragmented if you have a fever, and it may be difficult to work with fragments of thought and feeling directly. At times like this, it can be more helpful to attend directly to sources of steadiness, grounding, and comfort in sensory experience.

Here are three places for your attention, that may bring comfort if you are ill right now.

1. The feet

The contact of the feet against the floor – the texture of sock or carpet; the sense of the body’s weight through the soles – can be a very grounding place to settle the attention. Unlike the breath, the feet cannot be anxious, or afraid. When awareness is fevered or fearful, you can have the sense almost of ‘pooling’ the attention in the feet, allowing gravity to bring the attention to rest. The attention may flit away again, and this is perfectly normal – just gently bring it back. You can do this lying down, as well, sensing whatever parts of the feet are in contact with the bed or sofa.

2. The ‘envelope’ of the whole body

When there are intense physical symptoms in one part of the body, or strong emotions, attention will typically zoom tightly in upon them. By contrast, when awareness is fevered, it may be so broad and loose as to feel slightly unreal. Bringing the awareness to the whole of the body can help soften the first experience, and bring the second back to the here and now. If you are lying down, you can sense the body’s contact points along the feet, legs, back, arms and head. You can sense the whole envelope of the skin – contact with duvet, blanket, pillow, clothing. As best you can, allow this attending to be soft, almost as if you were cradling the body in gentle awareness.

3. Notice where feels pleasant or neutral

If you feel unwell, and there are all kinds of unpleasant body sensations pulling for your attention, notice if there is anywhere in the body that feels pleasant, or neutral. This could be just the sensations of lying down; a comforting warmth, or coolness, in some part of the body; it could even be the contact between the eyelids. See what it’s like to rest the attention in this place, allowing yourself to really dwell in it. Once you have spent some time here, see if you notice anywhere else in the body that has a similar quality of comfort, pleasantness, or just neutrality. The attention will be automatically drawn towards what is unpleasant, so it may be helpful to sense that these other places are here, too, to which you can return.

The feet, and the ‘envelope’ of the whole body, are less likely than the breath to feel saturated with difficulty if you have a respiratory illness. Orienting your attention towards whatever feels pleasant can also give you a sense of respite, and comfort. When you drop into sensory experience in this way, allow your body to tell you what it needs: perhaps rest, water, warmth, or the assistance of other bodies.

As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, ‘if you need to sleep, for goodness' sake sleep, don’t meditate.’ But if you feel well enough to practice something a little more formal, you might like to try this shorter version of the body scan. At just fifteen minutes, this may feel more helpful and suited to a drained or sleepy awareness than a long practice.

Wishing you all a week of safety and good health, in which this guidance is thoroughly unnecessary – but here it is, should you find it helpful.

Road sign with the words 'comfort' written on it

Kitty’s weekly mindfulness virtual drop-in consists of an email with a suggested practice, theme, and article or podcast episode for reflection, to explore in your own time. Email mindfulness@ed.ac.uk to subscribe.