Harnessing your fibromyalgia anxiety with mindfulness meditation

“Breathe and let be”, Jon Kabat-Zinn

Within the last two decades, the concept of mindfulness meditation has been adopted by schools, hospitals, businesses, police, and even the military. Those who teach/mentor MM to people in the huge business of organized sport, the corporate world, and the military, no doubt live with some degree of contradiction in their lives.

It is not a practice that is focused so much on ethical issues in big business or professional sport (considered by many to be legitimated violence as in many sports such as boxing, football, and hockey and is integral to commercial enterprise, with an emphasis on competition and a ‘killer’ instinct). Too, many are amazed that military personnel who are taught about killing would benefit from MM, but those who suffer from PTSD, the after-effects of their experiences, could be helped greatly from their difficult military experiences.

I have likened PTSD elsewhere to fibromyalgia sufferers. It is what was once described as ‘shell shock. Who better to be taught a contemplative practice to help ease the burden of their flashbacks? Police and military personnel have jobs that are necessary to society and having resources to them that allow a mindful approach to their daily lives is paramount.

None of this is to say that those who are professional athletes or in the corporate world are not worthy of learning about ways in which to develop more empathy for themselves and others. Empathy and compassion are integral to MM. No one ‘owns’ this individual practice. While mindfulness is not regarded as a practice that has a political agenda it is seen as a way of listening to oneself as well as to others. In an indirect way, it can help with the current chaos and despair that permeates societies in this century with an emphasis on less aggression and anger.

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MM won’t save the world from the many wrongdoings of the corporate world or the military machine complex and its wars (but it can be of great help in peacekeeping). In schools of various kinds, especially with children, in the field of medicine and health, and most directly in our own personal lives, no matter how we chose to live them, quietly contemplating our thoughts and actions can have a profound effect on society.

The toll booth ticket takers, cleaners, garbage collectors, computer analysts, farmers, nurses, secretaries, doctors, teachers, volunteers, housewives and househusbands, and daycare workers among thousands of other people are all subject to various kinds of anxieties and fears.

The journal Mindful is one that presents the practice in a variety of settings and is a valuable source of information regarding issues of MM.

What exactly is so easy, yet so difficult about being mindful and practicing mindfulness meditation? If someone was disciplined to ‘sit’ quietly for a few minutes each day and gradually increase the time to 20 minutes on a daily schedule it is believed to actually change the neural pathways of the brain. I have written many blogs on this site encouraging readers to embark on this journey so I beg the reader’s forgiveness for repeating myself once more.

Many have asked me about the difference between meditation and mindfulness. I am far from an expert on the subject and have struggled with the concepts over many years. I am not diligent about daily meditation sitting but I am getting better at reminding myself on an almost hourly schedule to bring attention to my thoughts and focus at that moment on my breath.

Can one incorporate mindfulness and meditation? How is that accomplished? They are in fact the same thing, but being mindful is not just about sitting quietly while allowing our thoughts to come and go while labeling each of them ‘thinking’ and then turning attention to the breath.

Being mindful is practicing the art of ‘living in the moment—while eating, dressing,  brushing our teeth, cleaning the house, attending a meeting, playing an instrument, writing on this blog …any of the daily activities of living. Many years ago I took a contemplative photography course which changed my view of photography as an art. To stop, breathe, and think of the subject matter in a deliberate way was an extraordinary experience.

It is not just sitting quietly meditating for a few minutes each day. It is an awareness of what we are doing on a moment-by-moment basis. THIS IS NOT AN EASY TASK! Many are confused by the label of mindfulness meditation but many more are challenged by the process itself as it is so difficult. One cannot say “There! I’ve meditated for twenty minutes, now I’m finished for the day”. Meditation does not become easier, nor is there a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ experience of the practice…it just is.

Thoughts are constant and meditation is not to suggest that we can ‘stop’ thinking as it is ongoing. But for those of us with ruminating anxious thoughts meditation can be a way of looking at ourselves through a different lens. It is a way of paying attention, on purpose, moment to moment. We can learn to have self-compassion, to be nonjudgmental about our thoughts, and to make friends with our minds rather than struggle with fear, depression, anxiety, anger, and other negative and frightening emotions no matter what our lot is in life.

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However, I want to point out that for those privileged by not suffering from racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, poverty, or ageism every day their lives are often (but certainly not always) less fraught with challenges and struggles. Still, even the privileged among us suffer from anxieties and depression and can be subject to fibromyalgia. Mindfulness meditation does not cure anxiety or depression. It allows us the space to not struggle against it.

The chronic anxiety of fibromyalgia can be helped with a program called ‘Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy’ which has been found to be extremely useful. The goal is to help the person to focus less on reacting to incoming stimuli and to accepting them without judging and without struggling against them. fMRIs have shown that practicing mindfulness meditation increases activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain and brings about greater self control. 

MBCT programs have become highly regarded as effective for people with anxiety and depression. It is a form of therapy that incorporates mindfulness and meditation (please note I am uncomfortable about separating mindfulness and meditation).

I have called my anxiety by name. She is “Hortense” and I chide her often. I say:” Don’t come back for a few hours, ok? I will listen to you then but for now I am not ready. I need a time out”. Sometimes I laugh at her as she is working hard to bring frightening thoughts to my mind. Hortense is the name of a beautiful flower.

How can something as beautiful as that send me into a catastrophic thought? For me, meditation focuses on the quiet. It is about hearing. It is: “The Sound of Silence”. It is about hearing our own minds and practicing to hear the voices of others. I think of these lines: “People hearing without listening” (lyrics by Paul Simon, recorded in March 1964, “The Sound of Silence”).

We hear our minds, but we often don’t listen. We need silence to do so. TVs and radios constantly blaring, phones ringing, computers and smartphones being attended to almost minute by minute do not allow us to hear ourselves. The world is filled with noise pollution. Fibromyalgia is basically a hyper-aroused central nervous system. Noise is a huge trigger for those of us subject to this malady. Quiet is soothing to our sensitive selves.

Mindfulness can be practiced in a waiting room, on a bus, waiting in a cashier’s line, or anywhere. Could this woman be meditating?

*photo of this painting from the private collection of a friend. It is an untitled oil on canvas 36×24″, Evgenia Makogon (artist), 2004.

Do read many of the books, journals, articles, and websites, or listen to podcasts or CDs on Mindfulness Meditation. The experts are many. But, it is not just theirs; MM belongs to us all if we chose to incorporate this gift into our lives.

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