woman balancing on a tree bridge while practicing yoga in front of a waterfall

So I have to say that meditation was not something that came naturally to me. It wasn’t something I did as a child, or something I got into as I grew up. In fact, I didn’t really try to meditate seriously until a couple of years ago.

I wish I had started sooner, but am primarily grateful that I am practicing it now!

My challenge in meditating

In my case, I think I had a better excuse than most people(then again, many people probably feel that their case is the exception). I have Functional Neurological Disorder(FND), and in my case it expresses primarily as myoclonic jerks(sudden severe movements) and tonic-clonic movements(muscles releasing or tightening unexpectedly). What I mean to say is that I shake, rattle, and roll a lot(seriously, I’ve had a lot of evenings where I’m uncontrollably rolling around in my bed for 20 minutes or so!), and I cannot consciously control or prevent the motion.

woman sitting on a log, her back turned to the camera, meditating in the woods
Meditating in the middle of the forest looks beautiful, and is something I’m not going to be doing anytime soon

I have regained some control over the years, but that generally means that I can shift the movements around(from one limb to another, for example) or sometimes with focus slow it down after it starts, but I can’t prevent the initial motion from happening. Also, that control I mention is a very conscious effort on my part, and so is pretty much the opposite of what I’m supposed to do during meditation.

This is a big part of why it took me so long to embrace meditation. For most people, the concern is about stilling their minds, being left alone with their thoughts. For me, the concern was about stilling my body! Since relaxing and releasing often would result in my being symptomatic, it was really hard to convince myself that knowingly choosing to release control was a good idea.

Meditating anyway

My neurologist was a big proponent of meditation and felt that it was a very useful treatment, and he encouraged me to meditate and work on developing that habit. The final straw that really got me to crack was that when I participated in an FND treatment program, the therapist there introduced me to a great meditation app, encouraged me to meditate, and ended up guiding me through a meditation sequence while I was symptomatic and extremely emotional. It really helped!

So, daily meditation is one of my goals now. I don’t always make it – bad symptom days, days my nose is stuffed up, and days when I can’t seem to find the time, it doesn’t happen. On a related note, I am a firm believer and active practitioner of mindful self-compassion.

cat sprawled on its back on a bed, strangely positioned
Cats seem to be comfortable at any strange angle they pick – I had to become more awkwardly cat-like.

I am a little more limited than most people in that I strongly prefer (bordering on need) to meditate on a mattress. Most people can meditate lying down, sitting up, or even standing or walking!

Since I have been practicing for several years, I now generally don’t fully roll around too much, but I definitely kick, slam limbs together, slam my head backward, and make other absolutely-not-relaxing motions. But meditating by lying down on a mattress can work, and with the cushioning provided by the mattress, my worst case situation is taking a bit of a nap, so I’m happy to keep trying.

I’ve focused on body scan meditations, but for myself, I focus more on my breathing and release control over my body.

I don’t get frustrated by my movements(ideally), but instead, flow with them – my knees slamming into one another is just another thing to observe, not something to control or stop.

It’s worked. I’m usually feeling better after meditation, and in a way ‘letting it out’ during the meditation decreases the likelihood that I’ll be symptomatic(or as strongly symptomatic) later.

I also find that often the movements minimize or even stop as the meditation proceeds, so it seems like my subconscious is starting to learn that meditation is safe.

I have even expanded to doing sitting meditations on a well-padded chair on good days.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction(MBSR)

There is an entire class, for free, about using mindfulness and meditation to manage chronic illness and generally improve your quality of life. The original creator, Jon Kabot-Zim put the full program together in the late ’70s, and has proven its utility in medical settings.

What I’m saying is that meditation, and specifically MBSR, isn’t dubious, doesn’t need to be mystical, and while the best-known practitioners followed certain religious beliefs, meditation itself is not religious or faith-based.

a group of older Asian monks
People who meditate come from all different backgrounds and while meditation is a part of all major religions, it is a science-backed process that does not require any religious interest or perspective

Mindfulness meditation is a practical and scientifically based treatment, with similar potential as other science-based treatments such as surgery, medication, or physical therapy.

That doesn’t mean that it replaces any of these(though in some cases it may), but it does mean that a meditation practice can be just as valuable for your health as medication or surgery.

There’s also a much lower risk of side effects. and it is cheap to free to practice and your worst possible outcome to the practice is taking a nap if you’re in need to sleep. Seems like an absolute win, right?

How symptoms are reduced or controlled with meditation

I doubt all the mechanisms have been learned, but the very basic idea is that the act of meditating is changing your brain’s function just a bit.

The self-awareness and self-understanding that often comes with meditation can help the practitioner(you) to be more self-aware, calmer(lower anxiety), better able to focus, and can help put pain in perspective, which reduces how debilitating it can be.

There are some great explanations of meditation as a pain management tool(both physical and emotional pain), and having worked on the process for the past several weeks, I can attest that it is helpful.

The basic idea is this: when we are managing pain, there’s a lot more going on than just the physical pain itself. Often, we stack additional emotions and ideas on top of them, increasing or exaggerating how disabling they are.

For example, I have a headache today. The headache is mild(about a 2 on the NRS-11(10 point) scale). When I am focused on things that interest me(like writing this post), I’m aware of it, but it doesn’t really bother or affect me much.

pile of stones, carefully balanced
My headache is that one large stone at the bottom, but it’s easy to build the whole tower of pain and frustration and fear on that foundation.

However, if I focused on how badly it hurt, or was angry with myself for being in pain on this beautiful day(the sun is shining and the birds are singing), or if I focused my energy on the frustration that I have a headache, I’m more likely to also notice other problems. My left leg feels numb inside(an issue that’s been occurring to varying degrees for the last three years or so).

Focusing on the pain as I build an internal list of the causes for my misery is likely to lead to me noticing every little ache and pain and less-than ideally feeling muscle in my body.

A lot of people fall into mental traps like that, or focus on the thing or things that their pain prevents them from doing – like for me when my leg feels super numb I’m not very eager to go out for a walk since that numbness can feel stronger when I’m walking for a while.

So I could have a conversation with myself along the lines of “So I’ve got this headache, and my leg’s numb, so I can’t go for my walk today. It’s beautiful out but the sun will probably make my headache worse, and I hate it when the numbness turns to pain.

If I go out, I’ll probably start shaking and the main symptom I’ve been having lately is my head shaking which will make me dizzy, and so then I’ll have a worse headache and can’t look at my screens and won’t be able to get anything done all day”

This catastrophizing is really easy to fall into and isn’t necessarily horribly inaccurate – it’s possible that the bright day outside could increase my headache(though by no means a guarantee), and it’s possible to probable that if I try to walk for a few miles, my leg numbness will turn to pain or my other leg will go numb(that leg may be a nerve compression issue, I’m getting some testing done this week to see).

three rocks stacked on top of one another, around the same size
Think of the bottom rock as the pain or other symptom making your life more challenging. Your thoughts, emotions, and responses are the additional rocks above it. Meditation lets you only carry the single rock, instead of the pile.

I have had headaches that were severe enough that I needed to cut out screen time, and when the pain is really bad, I do need to lie in the dark and/or take a nap.

There is some truth behind these suppositions, but they can be avoided simply by not taking the walk and being okay with it, or promising myself to go for a walk later if the headache eases off.

Picturing the worst is likely to leave me feeling angry at myself(another layer of pain) or frustrated with my situation(another layer of pain) and focused on the worst possible outcome(fear or loss, either way another layer of pain).

Meditating is the opposite of this catastrophication, encouraging the practitioner to identify the root of the issue, focus on individual aspects of their life, and be detached about the information they are getting about themselves

Meditating to reduce pain

By meditating on the problem instead of catastrophising, I am able to step back and identify the pain. I can observe it with curiosity and describe it in an accurate and detailed way. It is often referred to as ‘turning towards’ the pain, rather than following our instincts to ignore(which doesn’t work) or focus on what our pain prevents us from doing or makes more challenging(which adds another layer of emotional pain)

Today, my meditation was focused on that headache, and to me, it feels round and sharp at the same time – like it was initially a relatively flat round stone that had one side sharpened – the sharp side is pushing against my forehead on the inside, while the roundness is deeper in my head.

Having a visual image like this lets me describe it better, but also being more objective about the sensation lets me simply focus on it by itself, rather than connecting that pain with all of the emotions(like anger, frustration, or fear) that might stem from it.

woman seated on a piece of wood with a cylinder underneath it - attempting to maintain her balance
balancing, and creating an internal balance, is always challenging – but when achieved it is empowering

The second part of the pain meditation was to picture a positive in my life – a moment of positive emotion, a person who I view as comforting, the relative comfort of other parts of my body(my right leg feels fine, as does my right arm and my torso), or anything else that is positive and comforting(one day, I meditated on the comforting warm weight of my cat Rorschach sleeping on my bed leaning against me).

Holding onto both of those feelings at the same time can help the pain decrease, or at least feel more manageable, and can kind of put the pain into perspective.

Yes, I do hurt, but there are still wonderful things in my life.

Yes, I am experiencing pain, but not everywhere.

It’s not about ignoring or avoiding the pain(often trying to ignore something just makes it feel stronger), but instead about embracing it and still feeling joy too!

By isolating the pain and not layering it with my emotional response, I can more easily do more and be more even though I am still hurting(or symptomatic, or emotional).

There are also meditations specifically for turning towards difficult emotions and emotional responses for those who are managing mental health issues or more psychological/emotional concerns. The process is similar, but the wording of the meditation is different.

I’m working on both, as with my FND, the primary issue is that my mental and emotional state is even more closely associated with my physical health and symptoms than most people!

Conclusion: Controlling symptoms through meditation

Meditation is a practice and a goal in and of itself. It is a scientifically backed form of self-help that has been proven to help people with emotional or physical pain better manage their pain and uncertainty.

It is a practice that you can spend as little as 10 minutes at a time on, and the only person who knows how well or badly you are doing in your practice is you. And you’re likely doing better than you think – we tend to be our own worst critics!

All people face challenges in meditating, and while mine are more physical than most(literally my body wandering, rather than just my mind), meditation can be done from a variety of positions(sitting, lying down, even standing if you’re feeling creative), and those challenges can be overcome if you set your mind to it!

Of course, just trying to meditate is an effective practice that teaches you something about yourself.

Meditation is a useful and helpful tool for managing many different conditions, and can also be useful to help our caregivers or partners or friends manage their life stresses.

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction(MBSR) is a technique that was proven useful for symptom management of a variety of patients in the late 1970’s, and is still useful today.

It can replace or supplement medication and aid in the rate of recovery from surgery or other traumas, and it’s inexpensive both in terms of financial and energy investment.

By focusing on identifying and picturing your pain, or exploring your physical reaction to difficult emotions, you can learn to put your pain into perspective and reduce how much it effects your day-to-day living.

Managing pain is hard, but meditation can be another tool to help yourself to live the best life you can!

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