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Mindfulness for Autoimmune Disease

Updated: Apr 4, 2023

Living with an autoimmune condition can be a daily challenge. Whether it’s dealing with the physical symptoms or the emotional toll of managing a chronic illness, it can be difficult to find a sense of peace and wellbeing amidst it all.



Autoimmune conditions are a group of disorders that occur when the body's immune system mistakenly attacks its own tissues. This can lead to a wide variety of symptoms, such as pain, inflammation, and fatigue.


While there is currently no medical cure for autoimmune conditions, there are ways to manage symptoms and improve quality of life.


Mindfulness is one such approach.


What Is Mindfulness?


Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment with a non-judgmental and curious attitude. It involves intentionally focusing your attention on your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations in a compassionate way.


This can be broken down into three main qualities:


  • Mindfulness is intentional – it nurtures our ability to make conscious choices and act with awareness.


  • Mindfulness is experiential – it expands our ability to experience the present based on direct perception, not the thoughts and stories we have about the experience.


  • Mindfulness is non-judgemental – it allows us to see things as they actually are, and to notice and patiently let go of any judgements we have about what should be happening or what is wrong about our experience.

Mindfulness Benefits for Autoimmune Disease


1. Mindfulness can help us become more aware of our patterns of thought and behaviour.


By becoming more mindful, we can begin to notice when we are getting caught up in negative or unhelpful thought patterns, and make more conscious choices about how we respond to them.


This can reduce stress, and increase emotional regulation - all factors that are well-documented to reduce symptom flares in autoimmune disease.


A field of research called psychoneuroimmunology has validated age-old human wisdom about the unity of mind and body, showing that the emotion-processing centres of the brain are inextricably linked with the nervous system, the immune system, and the hormonal apparatus.

There are large-scale prospective studies showing that self-repressing emotional patterns and stress are major risk factors many autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn disease.


To learn more about how thought patterns and behaviour can shape our health - read When The Body Says No by Gabor Maté and The Biology of Belief by Bruce Lipton.



2. Mindfulness can help us develop greater self-compassion and acceptance.

By learning to observe our thoughts and feelings without judgment, we can begin to cultivate a sense of kindness and understanding toward ourselves.


Due to the close link between stress + inflammation + and immune dysregulation as predisposing risk factors for autoimmune disease, self-compassion may be an important factor for managing such conditions.


3. Mindfulness and meditation can modulate the brains response to pain and has been found to reduce pain as effectively as the main prescription painkillers.

Pain is one of the most debilitating symptoms of many autoimmune conditions, so the pain-modulating effects of mindfulness are an important benefit to the practice.


4. Mindfulness reduces stress levels and improves mood.

Mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress levels by promoting relaxation, improving emotional regulation, and enhancing coping skills. This can be particularly beneficial for individuals with autoimmune diseases, who often experience high levels of stress due to the chronic nature of their condition and its impact on their daily lives.

Mindfulness has also been shown to improve mood and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, which is important for individuals with autoimmune diseases, who are at a higher risk for mental health conditions.


5. Mindfulness has been found to improve the immune system and engage the parasympathetic nervous response, which is the branch of the nervous system responsible for healing.


Research has suggested that mindfulness practices may have a positive effect on immune function. By reducing stress levels and promoting relaxation, mindfulness may help to support immune function and improve overall health and well-being.


What Does Mindfulness Involve?

There are various types of mindfulness practice, the most well-known being awareness of the breath as it flows in and out of the body. Other types of mindfulness practices include the body-scan, loving-kindness (metta), and alternating-anchor practices.

All these practices, in various different ways, allow us to observe the mind and body, and to observe thoughts and sensations, pleasant and unpleasant, as they arise.

Primary and Secondary Suffering


With practice, you may become aware that suffering, or pain, comes in two forms: Primary pain and Secondary pain.


Primary pain can be described as the actual unpleasant sensations in the body. You could see it as the raw information being sent by the body to the brain. It also describes the physical symptoms someone with an autoimmune condition might experience.


For example, someone with rheumatoid arthritis may experience joint pain and stiffness, while someone with lupus may experience fatigue and skin rashes.


Secondary pain follows on closely behind it, and can be seen as the mind’s reaction or resistance to Primary pain. You could also consider it as the emotional distress that can arise, for example, as a result of living with an autoimmune condition. Secondary suffering can be just as challenging as primary suffering, if not more so.


The many signs of Secondary pain include:

  • Physical symptoms (like tightening or tension)

  • Thoughts, for example “what if it gets worse” or “I can’t cope with this”

  • Distressing emotions, such as frustration, anxiety, anger, hopelessness, feelings of isolation

If you can distinguish between these two forms of pain, you can identify Secondary suffering, which can make a huge difference to your quality of life.


The Story of the Two Arrows

Mindfulness originates from ancient Buddhist teachings and practices.


The Buddha observed that suffering is an inherent part of human experience. No one wants to suffer; yet everyone will at some point in their life.

The Buddha suggests that instead of being driven by the desire to avoid suffering, we can learn to change our relationship with it.


The story of the two arrows illustrates this.


When asked to describe the difference between the response of a wise person and an ordinary person to pain, the Buddha describes the analogy of being pierced by an arrow:

“When an ordinary person experiences a pain, they worry and agonise over it. Then they feel two types of pain, one physical and one mental.


It’s as if this person was pierced by an arrow, and then immediately afterwards - by a second arrow, and so they experience the pain of two arrows.”


To give an example, one might experience pelvic pain as with the autoimmune condition endometriosis – this would be the first arrow. But immediately after they are taken over by secondary suffering, which might look like: frustration about having pelvic pain again, and fear that it might become worse.


The Buddha suggests that we can move towards acceptance of Primary suffering, and even avoid Secondary suffering altogether by “discerning and understanding your sensations as they are actually present”.


This may sound unrealistic if you’re living with pain - it is easy to relate to pain as a hard, ‘fixed’ thing.


But by bringing awareness to painful sensations, we can investigate it with a receptive and compassionate attitude, which allows us to see it for what it is, rather than what we imagine it to be.


After practicing mindfulness, you may already have found that the sensations you identify as ‘my pain’ are continually changing, ebbing and flowing like waves in an ocean.


This quick video shows a wonderful representation of Primary Vs Secondary suffering with a chronic illness:




A Note on Acceptance

Although turning your attention towards your pain may seem scary, learning to let go of resistance and stay with what’s actually happening can be a huge relief.


This attitude of acceptance is well expressed by the Serenity Prayer, which echoes the lesson of the two arrows and has been a cherished proverb for many of my clients:


“Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;

The courage to change the things I can;

And the wisdom to know the difference”


This exemplifies the first arrow, what we cannot change, the second arrow, the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference; mindfulness is the tool that can help you do this.


How to Introduce Mindfulness To Your Daily Life

Here are some tips for incorporating mindfulness into your daily routine:

  • Start small: Begin with just a few minutes of mindfulness practice each day, and gradually increase the amount of time you spend practicing.

  • Practice acceptance of your sensations, thoughts and feelings: Rather than trying to push away negative sensations, thoughts or feelings, acknowledge them, accept their presence with kindness and patience, and let them pass by without judgment.

  • Engage your senses: Bring your attention to the present moment by focusing on what you can see, hear, smell, taste, and feel.


Final Thoughts


Mindfulness is a transformative tool in helping us cultivate greater awareness, compassion, and resilience in our daily lives with autoimmune disease. If you have an autoimmune condition, consider incorporating mindfulness into your daily routine and see how it can help you better manage your symptoms and improve your overall well-being.



Next Steps


Hi I'm Molly, I'm a UK-based Nutritional Therapist (DipION, mBANT, CNHC) and Self-Compassion Coach (MSc) serving my community in Harpenden and online. Here in my little online home, you'll discover the benefits of nutritional therapy and complementary therapies for autoimmune disease and chronic illness.


Want to understand more about nutrition for autoimmune diseases? Download my free recipe book and discover 12 Nutritionist-Certified Recipes to Help Alleviate the Symptoms of Autoimmunity & Chronic Illness.




If you’re ready to take the next step, please book a FREE mini consultation


In this appointment, we will discuss your goals, any symptoms that you would like to address and relevant medical history that you think I should know about.


Together, we will decide whether this is the right step for you.





References


Maté G. The science of psychoneuroimmunology. Can Fam Physician. 2005 Apr 10;51(4):489. PMCID: PMC1472942.


Breines, J. G., Thoma, M. V., Gianferante, D., Hanlin, L., Chen, X., & Rohleder, N. (2014). Self-compassion as a predictor of interleukin-6 response to acute psychosocial stress. Brain, behavior, and immunity, 37, 109–114. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbi.2013.11.006


Brandel MG, Lin C, Hennel D, Khazen O, Pilitsis JG, Ben-Haim S. Mindfulness Meditation in the Treatment of Chronic Pain. Neurosurg Clin N Am. 2022 Jul;33(3):275-279. doi: 10.1016/j.nec.2022.02.005. PMID: 35718396.


Behan C. The benefits of meditation and mindfulness practices during times of crisis such as COVID-19. Ir J Psychol Med. 2020 Dec;37(4):256-258. doi: 10.1017/ipm.2020.38. Epub 2020 May 14. PMID: 32406348; PMCID: PMC7287297.


Davidson RJ, Kabat-Zinn J, Schumacher J, Rosenkranz M, Muller D, Santorelli SF, Urbanowski F, Harrington A, Bonus K, Sheridan JF. Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosom Med. 2003 Jul-Aug;65(4):564-70. doi: 10.1097/01.psy.0000077505.67574.e3. PMID: 12883106.


Ardi Z, Golland Y, Shafir R, Sheppes G, Levit-Binnun N. The Effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction on the Association Between Autonomic Interoceptive Signals and Emotion Regulation Selection. Psychosom Med. 2021 Oct 1;83(8):852-862. doi: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000994. PMID: 34387225.



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