Mindfulness has become increasing more popular within our society over the last several years, and with good reason! There are hundreds of books, websites, podcasts and online videos written on the subject. However, some of its core messages have become muddled and there are a number of myths and untruths that have been shared. Also, it may not always be clear why mindfulness could be a helpful tool for those of us living with ME/CFS.

The aim of this page is to explore what mindfulness is (and isn’t), why it can often be helpful for people with ME/CFS and importantly, how to begin a practise.

It is worth noting at this point that there are times in people’s lives where beginning mindfulness as a practise may not be helpful. For instance, if we are in the midst of uncontrolled, strong, emotions and thoughts, this can feel like first learning to swim in the rough, open-sea. It would be easy to get swept-up by their content and we may become overwhelmingly more aware of their presence.

When learning to first swim, we do so under the guidance of a teacher, in a controlled & shallow environment, perhaps with water aids. This would be the same for mindfulness; beginning with a teacher, experiencing thoughts & emotions that feel workable, patient about the journey ahead and resisting temptation to ‘fix’ all of our greatest challenges at once.

If you are unsure about how suitable mindfulness may be for you at the moment, please speak with a member of our team and we will happily discuss this with you.

  • What is mindfulness?

    Andy Puddicombe, founder of the Headspace app, explains some of the roles of mindfulness, his personal experiences and the evidence for its use in this wonderful video:

    Jon Kabat-Zinn (whose wonderful research in the US was responsible for bringing mindfulness to the attention of western healthcare systems) defines mindfulness as

    … the awareness that arises from paying attention to the current moment, in a particular way, without judgement

    Mindfulness is also frequently described as simple ‘awareness’. This can be awareness of thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, sounds, smells, to name just a few.

    This may feel abstract at the moment and that’s normal!

    However, like most things in life, the more we experience it (rather than talk about it), the clearer this will become.

  • What mindfulness is not

    There are some common misunderstandings about mindfulness that can undermine its practise, or even prevent people from trying it in the first place.

    Here are some of the most common ones:

    • Mindfulness is a religion: This is not true. While mindfulness is most commonly associated with Buddhism (because of their emphasis on the practise for personal & community growth) it is not, in itself, religious. An analogy would be the drinking of red wine and eating of bread, which can be associated with the Christian faith, but are not in themselves religious. Eating bread and drinking red wine do not make people become a Christian.
    • Mindfulness is a relaxation practise: This is also not true. Relaxation may happen, but equally it may not. We can be mindful of the fact that we are relaxed or we can be mindful of the fact we are stressed and tense. What’s important is our openness to these feelings and not struggling against them. After all, relaxation (and sleep!) tend to occur most readily when we ‘let go’, rather than force them to happen.
    • Mindfulness is about having a clear/empty mind: Perhaps the most common myth of all. Experienced meditators may think just as much as beginners. However, experienced meditators watch the mind thinking, rather than participate in its stories. If you like, experienced meditators sit at the back of the cinema, watching the movie, rather than being on-screen and stuck in the action.
    • Mindfulness is selfish and lazy: Absolutely not. Mindfulness is an act of self-compassion rather than selfishness. An analogy would be: stealing someone else’s lunch, which is selfish, however, taking your own lunch with you is self-compassion. Mindfulness is not at anybody else’s expense. In fact, it caring for others is important to us, it would be wise to care for ourselves too. We will also learn that being ‘still’ and doing nothing/being lazy are really quite different.
  • How do we cultivate mindfulness?

    We develop mindfulness through the practise of mindfulness meditation.

    There are many ways of doing this and there are various guides and resources at the end of this page to help.

    A useful introduction to meditation is a ‘mindfulness of sight exercise’. For this, let us use the sight of our right hand.

    • Start by adopting an alert, yet soft posture, such as sitting in a supportive upright chair. Take a moment to let go of any tension that you may become aware of in the body, as best you can.
    • Settle in to the body, perhaps becoming aware of those parts of the body in contact with the chair, and feeling the support that the chair offers you. See if you can surrender those supported areas to gravity and allow the chair to hold you.
    • After settling on the body for a few moments, bring your sight towards your hand:
      • Really tune in to the sites of the hand; such as colouration changes of the skin, folds & creases, shadows…
      • Notice any thoughts, judgements or emotions that arise in response to seeing the hand. Importantly, noticing these thoughts, judgements and emotions as thoughts, judgements and emotions.
      • You will likely discover, sooner rather than later, that the mind will wander off, or get hooked by a distraction, which could be a thought, a sound, a sensation elsewhere in the body.
      • This is totally normal and not a problem at all.
      • However, each and every time that your mind is no longer focused on the sight of your hand, just gently notice where the mind went. Perhaps making a mental note, such as ‘thinking’, ‘planning’, ‘worrying’. Then, gently escort the mind back to the sight of your hand once again.
      • It is very likely the mind will wander a great number of times, even in just a few minutes. This is also normal. As best you can, try and take each time the mind wanders as the first time.
      • We continually repeat this process:
        • Focus on the sights of the hand
        • The mind will wander, that is normal.
        • However, each time it wanders, note where it went and gently escort it back to the sights of the hand once again.
    • Continue with the practise for as long as you feel comfortable.
    • End the practise by once again coming back to the sensations in the body more widely, sitting in the chair. Then, open your sight up to the wider room, with a soft gaze.
    • Now, just acknowledge the value of your efforts and for taking your time to practise.
    • See if you can bring some of this more centred awareness to the next moments of your day.

    The type of anchor that we use for the present moment is less important than the overall practise itself. You may find that certain anchors are more helpful at certain times compared to others. For instance, you may find mindful walking in the living room more achievable if you are agitated and mindfulness of the breath more appropriate if you are sitting on a bus.

    Experiment with the practises and see what works for you!

  • How is mindfulness helpful for people with ME∕CFS?

    Research in to mindfulness for ME/CFS specifically is in its infancy. However, there are some early trials that show improvements in fatigue levels, mood, physical functioning and quality of life. The body of evidence for conditions that are often present alongside ME/CFS (such as persistent pain, anxiety and depression) are more established. For instance, we know that mindfulness is more helpful than medication at preventing relapse of severe, recurrent depression. We also know that mindfulness is more effective than standard doses of morphine in the management of pain.

    Let us now explore how mindfulness works and what we may have to gain from a practise.

    If you have read our ‘Role of Acceptance’ page, you will see that our understandable aversion responses (e.g. fighting/fear/sadness) caused by the symptoms can inadvertently sustain and worsen them. Mindfulness helps us to side-step that quicksand scenario and develops those parts of our brain associated with acceptance and self-compassion, both for ourselves and our symptoms.

    If you have seen our section on the ‘Role of thoughts’, you may be aware how the kinds of thoughts we experience can influence our emotions and our behaviour. Mindfulness develops our ability over time to step back from the narrative of our minds and to watch it as if we were curiously watching a film. No longer ‘fused’ with these thoughts, we have the ability to let them float by, like clouds in the sky or leaves on a stream. We may also see that we have more choices in that moment than our minds may allow us to see.

    When we may think we are physically resting, our nervous system is still consuming huge amounts of energy and oxygen (even more than our heart and muscles!). We can be sat still, but at the same time be hugely busy in our minds, thinking about the past and the future. Mindfulness gives us an opportunity to touch base with the present moment, where there is often less ‘to do’ than our minds may be telling us. We can step out of the ‘doing mode’ and occupy the ‘being mode’, which can soothe & heal us, provide a new way to live & experience ourselves and the world around us. This can dial down some of all that extra nervous system excitability and allow us to rest more fully.