Can you do mindfulness meditation when you are sick: 7 tips to feel better

Published by Olivier Devroede on

Remember the last time you got ill? Your muscles might have felt sour, your might have had an annoying running nose, or, the most dreadful of all for me, you might have felt nauseous. So, the last thing you should to be doing is to zoom in to your general illness symptoms, right? In any case, it will make you feel more sick, isn’t it?

Well, the short answer to the question if you can do mindfulness meditation when you are sick is ‘yes’. and the chances are good that it will increase your well being. However, it will most probably not diminish your symptoms or reduce the time your are ill by a significant amount. If your want to know how these contradicting statements can be reconciled, just read on.

A personal story

It sure is no fun to be sick. Not even for a teddy bear.

Let me tell you a personal story.

One day when I started out to become a mindfulness trainer, I fell ill. I had a fever and could barely get out of bed. As I have been ill a lot in the past, my default reaction is to try to push it away and to start feeling sorry for myself. At the peak of the disease, I even get thoughts like I could die. All that is very disturbing and certainly not helping me to heal. If anything, it is making me feel even more miserable.

But, as I was an aspiring mindfulness trainer, I thought to myself that I should try to be mindful. And thus I started to apply the basic techniques to my illness symptoms: where was I feeling pain? How is this manifesting? Is it getting stronger or weaker?

I applied the same techniques to my emotions, looking at my despair or my fear of dying. All in the way I had been training when feeling calm and composed.

So, did the pain and muscle sourness magically vanish by doing these exercises? (that would be great, wouldn’t it? )

No. I still felt like crap. I still felt ill.

But after a little while, I got some perspective. I actually started to care less about my illness. It lifted my spirits up. I genuinely felt better. And at the same time feeling crappy because of my body hurting.
It is an indescribable feeling. I remember starting to laugh. Which did not help the muscle pain btw. So I reverted to internal laughing 🙂

But I had unmistakably proven to myself that though applying mindfulness to my illness symptoms, I could shift my perspective and make my sickness more bearable. It was almost enjoyable.

And no, I do not believe my illness was reduced because of this. And I certainly was not healed 10 minutes later. But since, I recommend this to everybody that is involved in mindfulness or that is willing to give it a try.

It even has made me have a closer look at myself when I started to have the first signs that I might fall ill.

As said, I have been ill quite some time in my life and a such, I am closely attuned to any symptoms that might indicate that I might come down with something. It has made me into some kind of hypochondriac.

Whenever I felt something, I would immediately start to think about all the things I would miss out on. That important presentation I would not be able to give, or the course, or dinner I would not be able to attend. As I have been sick a lot, my view was that the symptoms almost equate me falling ill.

Until I started to have a closer look at my symptoms. Really feeling my body. Really feeling the fear of missing out. And from this awareness, accepting whatever is happening in the moment. I even go one step further in accepting all the possible future now. Whether I fall ill or not, there is not a lot I can do about, after all. Except maybe taking some extra vitamins, but that will not do a lot of good either.

What happened next, over the course of a few months, is that I saw that I symptoms do not equate falling ill. And that not worrying about whether or not I could go to the recital of my son did not impact me actually being there. So there was not point in doing that at all. Accepting the bodily sensations and emotions took the sting out of it.

Seven Tips for being mindful when you are sick.

Mindfulness can feel like a hot water bag. Soothing and comforting

1) Hone your skills when healthy.

It is obvious that you need a good basic understanding of the technique of mindfulness first. You need to know the insides and outs before attempting to do this when being sick. As you no doubt know, doing this with a fever is a whole lot more challenging then when being healthy.

2) Do not overdo it.

Do not strain yourself. You need plenty of rest. Sleep a lot if you can. But once in a while, try to fully engage in mindfulness for short amounts of time. It is also a good exercise in acceptance. Acceptance of your current limitations that is. Since you will not be able to concentrate for very long. It is already very challenging to do a mindfulness exercise when feeling well, but this time it will be a lot more difficult. So go easy on yourself and do not overdo it.

3) Start with your pains.

Treat your symptoms as if it was a pain or discomfort you would put at the front of your awareness during a regular mindfulness practice.

Start of with the body parts that hurt the less. What does the pain feels like? Is it stingy? Is it soaring? Is it constant? Or Changing?

Once you have had a closer look at a smaller pain, you could try to direct your awareness to a spot that hurts more. Try to venture into the territory that you would normally avoid when being sick. Have a look if you can look at the pain in a non-judgemental way. Just observing the pain as it is.

4) Look at your emotions

As you venture into the more painful parts of your body, you should be on the lookout for any emotions that might crop up. It is absolutely normal to have aversion to pain. And the normal reaction is to avoid looking at it. The downside of this strategy is that possibly a lot of negative emotions might fill you and make you feel unnecessarily more negative.

So have a look at yo emotions too. Are you sad? If so, how does this feel? Where do you feel it? Or are you anxious? Or worried? And if so, of what?

Just try your best to hold the emotion that is most prominent into your awareness. Again, do not try to alter judge it. Just observe it as it is.

5) Accept.

Observing emotions and pains without judging them, or, said differently, pushing them away, is not an easy task to perform.

What I have found that can work wonders is to accept them.

You might ask, in what is not judging different from accepting? Aren’t they the same thing?

In my experience it is a matter of perspective. I experience non-judging as passive and accepting as active. Let me elaborate. When I practice non-judging, I am looking at the emotion or sensation from a little distance, and I do not meddle with it. But when I am in acceptance mode, I am looking for ways to be ok with it. I ask questions like ‘what is so bad about this emotion’, ‘what is the worst case scenario that could happen?’, ‘Is it really likely to happen?’, ‘What is the truth of this matter?’ and finally ‘Can I accept all of these’. More often than not, I end up accepting the feeling or sensation, making it much more bearable.

6) Check up on your mood.

Which brings us to the last part. Our mood. Once you accept your emotion or sensation, check on your mood. Has it changed?

For this, try to be aware of yourself as a whole person. Your entire body, all your emotions and thoughts at once. And are there any undertone currents. Do not worry if your do not know what I am talking about right now. You will soon discover when you practice the exercise.

It is in this part that you might discover that, yes, you are still feeling sick and miserable, but your mood might have lifted.

7) Try it.

My final tip is to make sure to try this. It is all too easy to forget doing this when being ill. I know mindfulness practice is the last thing you want to do when you are feeling sick. Still, give it a try!

I hope you enjoyed this article. Please leave a comment if you have tried the exercises above or if you already have experience with these techniques. Feel free to disagree with me.

Even when you are ill you can practice mindfulness. You will find that it has surprising benefits. #mindfulsick #mindfulness #mindovermatter #mindfulill

Olivier Devroede

Hi, I’m Olivier Devroede and I have been meditating seriously since 2009. Due to the great benefits I have seen in meditating, I decided to become an MBSR trainer myself and start a blog.