Chaplaincy

Finding Comfort When You Are Sick, Part 2: Non-COVID and Chronic Health Problems

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

Photograph of woman drinking a glass of water

Last week, I wrote about some ways of using mindfulness to find comfort if you are acutely unwell with a respiratory illness like coronavirus. Mindfulness practices typically draw on the breath as an anchor-point for steadiness and exploration, so when the breath is difficult, or charged with fear, we need to find those anchor-points in different places.

This week I’d like to address something else: the fact that many of us, staff and students, are grappling with current and chronic health problems that are not directly related to COVID, but that are nonetheless profoundly affecting life under lockdown.

You may have been experiencing a health condition even before COVID struck, or something may have emerged since. With the shutdown of large parts of the NHS, you may have found yourself in a diagnostic limbo, in-between referrals. For some problems, you may be receiving medical advice over the phone; but for others, requiring in-person treatment or medication, you may be stuck, waiting for something to change. Your medication may be in short supply across the health service. Your heart may sink every time your doctor tells you that you need a new prescription, for which you must stand in line at the pharmacy, two metres apart, thinking how ironic it would be if you were to catch coronavirus here. You may be in the extremely clinically vulnerable group, unable to leave your home; and if you have a mood disorder, or other mental health problem, the stress and disruption of lockdown and the world around us may be triggering these afresh, as Andrew Solomon articulated so well recently in The Guardian.

Even in ordinary times, illness, when we have it, takes up space in our lives. That space is material: we have bodies that are tender and alive, and sometimes sick and painful. It’s emotional: fear and worry about symptoms waxing and waning, self-doubt over how much fuss to make. It is cognitive: remembering to take certain pills; allotting time for treatments that are lengthy, for rest, or for other forms of self-care; picking up the phone to make yet another inquiry.

But in extraordinary times, all of this is amplified. Our lives have changed, and this shows up in experience of illness. Symptoms hang on, monitored for crisis, not cure, by your kind but disembodied doctor on the phone. Substitute drugs have different side-effects. Closed-down systems create frustration. People feel too guilty or afraid to take up medical resources: hospitals and GPs report a sharp drop in people seeking care, including a 50% drop in A&E attendance for heart attacks.

People are not just staying home to weather coronavirus; they are also trying to weather conditions and symptoms that in ordinary times, they would not. And so if you are currently experiencing health problems, there is something very important about seeing both the symptoms, and the weathering, clearly; investigating them, gently; and then acting wisely to care for ourselves in the midst of these extraordinary times, as best we can.

To do so, this week, we return to Tara Brach’s RAIN practice – Recognise, Allow, Investigate, and Nurture – which I first explored with you as a way of working with fear and worry. You may find it helpful to close your eyes and follow along with Tara’s guided practice, or just to work through the steps below, perhaps writing down what you notice.

Recognise

In this step, see if it’s possible to bring a sense of curiosity and inquiry to your symptoms in this moment. Notice if your mind immediately jumps to how they felt this morning, or yesterday, and gently bring it back. What do you notice, right now? There could be pain in a particular place in the body; dizziness; tension. If you are experiencing a mental health problem, you may notice rumination, exhaustion, anxiety, or low mood. Recognise, and name, gently, what is here. It could be a lot, or it could be less than you expected.

Allow

Take a moment to acknowledge and give space to what you have noticed. You might even say to yourself, internally, ‘ok, this is what the pain is like right now’; ‘ok, anxiety is here in this moment,’ as if you were speaking gently to a friend.

Allowing your symptoms to be as they are is not the same as being resigned to what you find. Rather, it opens up the possibility of fully acknowledging them. Whatever is here is already here – and to acknowledge this allows you to see your reality clearly, with some compassion.

Investigate

When we give space to what is here, it enables us to discern how we have been relating to it up until now. We may have been distracting ourselves, or putting off action; we may have been stuck in fear, with various possible outcomes playing across the mind. Self-critical thoughts sometimes come up, or, in the midst of COVID-19, particular fears or frustrations around medical treatment.

Right now, you may spot your mind’s preferred flavour of reaction flickering again in awareness. Name it: ‘distraction’; ‘imagining the worst’. Where does this show up in the body? Investigate this with some curiosity. You may have a sense of tension, or bracing. The body may be flooded with energy, or be heavy and listless. Take a moment to listen, sitting quietly with what you find.

Nurture

After recognising how things are in this moment, seeing what they’re like, and investigating gently, you might ask yourself: what does this need?

Photograph of a person drinking coffee while reading in a book in a cosy setting

Allow the question to land, and see what comes to mind. As I wrote some weeks ago, ‘While denial mind would have us continue on autopilot, and panic mind would have us do the biggest thing imaginable, often the small things are powerful: remembering to eat lunch, or drink a cup of tea; a phone-call to a friend, or a particular action or conversation.’

Sometimes, insight emerges with startling clarity. But the question ‘what does this need’ can echo, repeatedly, for as long as it feels helpful in this exploration. It may be that you start by responding in some small way, and that that opens up space, when you ask the question again, for some bigger decision or step.

As you give yourself this space to settle, and discern what your situation most needs, remember that in extraordinary times certain things are more important than ever. We need to ask for medical help when we are unsure. We need to be good friends to ourselves. And we need to know that we may not have all the answers right now, but that things will unfold; and if we stay connected to what is here, we will be able to act wisely, with the information we have, to look after ourselves.

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.