A Meditation for Medical Uncertainty and… | Center for Growth Therapy

A Meditation for Medical Uncertainty and Chronic Pain

Jonah , MSW, LSW — Associate therapist

Chronic Illness Therapy and Chronic Pain Therapy in Philadelphia, PA, Ocean City NJ, Mechanicsville VA, Santa Fe NM

This tip is for those grappling with chronic illness symptoms, like pain or gastrointestinal distress, and medical uncertainty, when doctors are unable to easily explain or treat your symptoms.

How We Understand Illness and Health in Western Culture: Chronic Illness Therapy and Chronic Pain Therapy in Philadelphia

We’ve all grown up in cultures operating under certain assumptions about sickness and health. In the dominant culture of the Western world, those assumptions include:

  1. It is normal to be healthy and abnormal to be ill. In other words, if you are sick, there’s something wrong.

  2. If there’s something wrong, the medical system can diagnose and cure our ailments.

  3. Our ailments can be fixed like the parts of a machine, every part with its own machine operator or physician specialist.

And these assumptions are not unfounded. The modern medical system accomplishes tremendous feats every day, from discovering ever-more sophisticated pharmacological treatments to exquisite surgical procedures that border on science fiction.

Medical Uncertainty: When Your Illness Can’t Be Easily Diagnosed or Treated: Chronic Illness Therapy and Chronic Pain Therapy in Philadelphia

So when we experience illness that isn’t easily diagnosed or treated by doctors, it can cause immense internal strife since some of our basic assumptions about the world have been violated. When our symptoms are real but can’t be easily validated by the tools or language of Western medicine, we sometimes begin to wonder, what’s wrong with us that we cannot be fixed, too? We may feel judged that it’s all in our heads.

Over time, medical uncertainty can lead to feelings of isolation, rejection, resentment, and fear, adding additional layers of pain on top of already painful chronic symptoms. When our basic assumptions for how the world works are violated, we can begin to feel like we’re unraveling. Our experience with medical uncertainty and chronic symptoms may evolve into new internalized assumptions that sound something like, I’m abnormal, or, there’s something wrong with me because I can’t be cured.

The truth is that, while modern medicine indeed excels at treating certain types of ailments, it only has relatively rudimentary tools for addressing others. This is particularly true for symptoms or conditions that involve multiple systems in the body, such as the brain-gut axis or bones, muscles, and neurons. That’s because the medical establishment itself has historically operated under those same assumptions mentioned earlier: that illness is abnormal, that all ailments can be cured, and our bodies are like machines with discrete parts.

But these assumptions are ultimately fallible, which is why so many don’t receive the treatment they desire from modern medicine. Illness is normal and, in a sense, the most human of experiences. Illness has been part of us since our evolutionary beginnings as simple-celled organisms. When we experience pain or other difficult sensations, it can feel unbearable, and yet, when we shift the perception of our symptoms from pain is bad and wrong to pain is just part of being human and having a body, we may find that our symptoms become easier to cope with. In fact, decades of research on mindfulness and chronic symptoms suggest as much.

Using Mindfulness to Cope with Medical Uncertainty: Chronic Illness Therapy and Chronic Pain Therapy in Philadelphia

This shift in perspective, that illness is part of life and our minds can be harnessed to cope with physical symptoms, reject’s Western medicine's assumptions that illness is always something to cure and our bodies can be treated like discrete parts—that the mind is separate from the body and the body is just the sum of its parts. In fact, all systems in the body (which includes the mind) are connected in a complex web of interdependencies, all constantly in a back and forth dialogue of cause and effect.

So if you’re someone who is grappling with medical uncertainty that makes you question yourself and the world, know that your illness actually just makes you human (i.e. normal), your experience is valid, and you’re not alone.

A Brief Meditation for Medical Uncertainty: Chronic Illness Therapy and Chronic Pain Therapy in Philadelphia

Now, let’s practice a meditation together to drive some of these ideas home in a more essential way. You can read these instructions as you practice them, or you can record yourself reading them aloud once so later on you can listen fully.

Begin by finding a posture, like sitting, standing, or lying down, that’s as comfortable as possible. If you experience a lot of bodily discomfort, that may be hard, but don’t get stuck here aiming for perfection. Allow that this meditation practice may include some experience of uncomfortable symptoms.

Now, let’s ground ourselves in the moment by allowing your head to slowly rotate from our neck, allowing your vision to guide you around your space and acquaint you with your surroundings. Like a gazelle scanning the savanna as it grazes, take in your space with curiosity for what you find, as if seeing it for the first time, and remind yourself that you are safe here and now in this moment. There are no lions. You can rest.

Then, begin to turn your attention to the body, bringing that same curiosity and observing stance you had for your external space to your inner space. You may notice the breath flowing in and out of the body and how that feels, simply noticing what you find without needing to add anything to it or make a story about it.

If you immediately find physical discomfort and begin to notice yourself feeling overwhelmed, just allow that there is pain right now in your body, and shift your attention to a part of the body that feels like a safer place to rest your attention. If the stomach or back, common areas where we feel pain, feel triggering, maybe you rest the attention with the hands, the lips, or the ears. Wherever you find, just rest in that area and pay close attention to the moment by moment experience of this part of the body, noticing the subtle shifts in sensation as you inhale and exhale. Every time you notice that your mind has wandered to another sensation in the body, or perhaps a thought about the future or the past, just gently bring yourself back to the area of the body that is a safe place for you to rest with your calm, focused attention.

When the mind feels a little more stable and settled, begin to silently repeat the following phrases to yourself:

May I have compassion for the part of me that is in pain.

May I have compassion for the part of me that desires to be cured.

May I have compassion for the part of me that feels uncertainty and confusion.

May I have compassion for any resentment, judgment, or anger I may harbor, towards myself or others.

May I accept that pain makes me human.

May I accept that pain makes me normal.

May I accept that pain connects me to all life on earth, as all beings experience pain.

May I learn to allow my pain as it comes, without resistance.

May I be a safe, compassionate refuge for pain to come and go like a weary visitor who just needs a good meal and a good night’s rest.

May I allow that pain is not my enemy, nor need it be my friend.

May I become curious about my pain as a teacher.

May I ask my pain what it has to teach me so I can live a good life.

Now, just rest in your experience, allowing anything that you find just to be as it is. If you notice resistance, numbness, overwhelm, or something else, just create a container for what’s there, without fighting it, without resistance. Simply softening to your experience, no matter what it is.

And when you’re ready, take a few deep breaths, and set the intention to continue your day with a more accepting, compassionate, and even curious stance towards your pain.

Remember, illness and pain are ultimately experiences that connect us, if we let them. If you’re finding that you need more support for working with medical uncertainty and illness, please reach out to one of our compassionate counselors who can help you cope in a holistic way.

Our mindfulness therapists and chronic illness therapists have experience working with many different types of chronic symptoms. These symptoms include musculoskeletal pain, neuropathic pain, and psychogenic pain (such as pain caused by or worsened by anxiety, depression, or trauma). We have mindfulness therapists and chronic illness therapists who are experienced in working with people who suffer from back pain, hip, knee, or foot pain, stomach, pelvic, or genital pain, and hand, arm, and shoulder pain.

To reach a mindfulness therapist or chronic illness therapist in Philadelphia, Ocean City, and Mechanicsville ,call 215-922-LOVE (5683) ext. 100 to talk to a therapist at the Center for Growth.

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