When One Drop health coach, Melinda Washington, was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in her 20s, she realized stress played a more toxic role in her life than she ever thought possible.
“At first, my doctors didn’t really understand what the cause of my IBS was,” she shares. In fact, it was her own self-reflection that led her to connect the dots between her stress and her IBS.
“I thought stress was just part of success,” explains Washington, who, at the time, worked a demanding job in sales. “That adrenaline is what motivated me to be successful. It served me well, until it didn’t—until I got sick.”
In learning more about her condition and how to manage it, Washington says she “went down a rabbit hole” exploring the mind-body connection. She wanted to know: “How does something in my mind affect my body and my health?”
Eventually, that exploration led her to mindfulness and meditation.
Discovering the Benefits of Mindfulness In Chronic Condition Management
For Washington, mindfulness and meditation became the “keys” to managing her stress and, in turn, her IBS symptoms. “I started watching and observing my thoughts, and recognizing that my thoughts lead to emotions, and the emotions lead to physical responses in my body,” she explains. “And I thought: How can I disrupt that loop when it comes to stress and negative thoughts?”
Now, while meditation may bring to mind visions of people sitting cross-legged and stoic with their eyes closed, the practice is about much more than that.
As Washington described, at its core, meditation simply means focusing your attention on your stream of consciousness and, without judgment, acknowledging the thoughts—both positive and negative—that float by. That means you can practice meditation in a variety of ways, from the traditional cross-legged-on-the-floor position, to more active mind-body practices, such as tai chi or yoga.
Mindfulness, on the other hand, is essentially the practice of remaining open-minded about your thoughts and staying grounded in the present moment—a skill that you’re also employing when you meditate, explains Washington. Think of meditation as something you intentionally set aside time to practice in one form or another, and mindfulness as a state of being that you can maintain throughout your day, regardless of what you’re doing or where you are.
Whether you’re meditating or being mindful, these practices can set you up for success when it comes to managing a chronic condition. Research has shown that, when done regularly, different forms of meditation may help lower blood pressure, reduce your risk of a heart condition, and relieve chronic back pain. Even among people with diabetes, mindfulness techniques have been linked to improvements in weight and blood sugar control.
So, what, exactly, is the secret sauce behind meditation and mindfulness that make them so beneficial for chronic conditions? Obviously, it partially depends on which condition you’re talking about. But, across the board, practicing mindfulness essentially helps you navigate distressing thoughts brought on by the chronic condition, whether you’re frustrated by physical pain or feeling overwhelmed by erratic blood sugar or blood pressure numbers.
Regardless of the context, practicing mindfulness or meditation translates to stress reduction, explains Washington—which then translates to a better mindset for you, which can then lead to a clearer, more grounded understanding of your chronic condition and how you approach it.
Teaching Others the Value of Mindfulness
After getting her IBS diagnosis and learning how to manage her symptoms, Washington left her career in sales, went back to school, and became a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) and certified diabetes care and education specialist (CDCES).
Now, as a health coach at One Drop, she helps people with chronic conditions understand their self-care needs and offers advice on how to meet their goals using proper nutrition, healthy forms of movement, and, in some cases, mindfulness-based techniques.
Take diabetes, for example—a condition that can often lead to burnout, considering the day-to-day, even minute-to-minute maintenance it requires for carb-counting, calculating insulin doses, measuring blood sugar, and more.
“When it comes to burnout, I encourage the philosophy of trusting the process of life,” says Washington. In other words, let’s say you have diabetes, and you’re constantly worried that you’re not taking your medication at the right time, or that you’re not exercising enough. Whatever’s stressing you out, Washington’s approach focuses on reminding yourself that you are doing everything in your power to take care of your health, and letting yourself take comfort in that fact. “You’ve done all you can do to show up for yourself without burning out, or being too exhausted, or too emotionally invested,” she explains. “Trust that everything is happening the way it should.”
As for how you apply that philosophy in your own life, again, it all comes back to mindfulness, says Washington. It’s not that stress, negative thoughts, or self-doubt about your health won’t ever come creeping in. But, when it does, mindfulness can disrupt those thought patterns, she explains. “It helps you become a better observer of your body and the mind’s role in the body,” she continues.
Maybe you get stomach cramps in response to stress, or tightness in your neck and jaw. However your stress presents itself in your body, the goal is to observe those thoughts and their physical manifestations, and interrupt them by bringing yourself back to the present moment, says Washington. You can focus on your breathing, or even have a mental dialogue with yourself and ask: What’s real in this moment? Is the stress I’m feeling rooted in something tangible, or is it merely a product of my own thought patterns?
“That’s what mindfulness is,” says Washington, adding that it can sometimes be helpful to visualize yourself literally capturing your negative thoughts with a net. “You can do this while you’re in a conversation, while washing the dishes, walking, during a meeting—it’s just about noticing what your body is telling you, identifying the thoughts that led to those bodily sensations, and intentionally taking deep breaths to reroute those thoughts and come back to the present moment.”
Want to learn more strategies for stress reduction? Become a One Drop member and connect with a coach who can help you understand where your stress comes from and how to manage it.
This article has been clinically reviewed by Jamillah Hoy-Rosas, MPH, RDN, CDCES, and VP of clinical operations at One Drop.