When we have chronic illness, inner peace may feel hard to come by. Because our brains are wired for survival and the mind views illness as a threat, we become fixated on the problem of illness and on trying to fix it. As we fixate on the illness, we lose connection with positive experiences and emotions, such as inner peace, inspiration, joy, love, compassion, and awe.
Despite our mind’s good intentions, fixating on the problem can lead to a chronic activation of the amygdala, the area of the brain that alerts us to danger. This can lead to chronic stress, fear, anxiety, and depression.
Research has shown that there is a link between positive mental states and improved health, including living a longer life. When we savor positive emotions, it leads to increased feelings of well-being and changes in the body that relate to health, including lower levels of stress hormones.
In order to nurture a greater sense of inner peace, it’s important to learn how to respond to an illness diagnosis and symptoms more skillfully while also cultivating positive emotional and mental states that encourage resilience. Resilience is our ability to respond to and recover from current and future stressful events more quickly and with greater ease.
Following are things we can do to cultivate inner peace and resilience.
1. Practice Meditation. Practicing meditation can support us in becoming more resilient, more capable of holding illness in perspective, and better able to cultivate and maintain positive emotional states. It has been shown to increase a sense of inner peace, happiness, and well-being. It has been shown to also reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.
2. Notice what is right. In response to the mind fixating on what it believes is wrong with us, we can try to consciously take some time to focus attention on what is right with us. This practice can bring us back into greater emotional balance. We might notice areas of our body that are functioning well to keep us alive, parts of our body that are supporting us as we move through the day, or parts of our body that we like or appreciate. We might notice and appreciate the senses that remain functional that support us in interacting with the world – vision, hearing, touch, taste, or smell. If one or more of our senses is fading, we might focus more attention on appreciating the other senses that remain intact.
3. Respond skillfully to difficult emotions. It’s human to have feelings of sadness, fear, anger, hopelessness, or other emotions in response to an illness diagnosis. Responding to these emotions skillfully by allowing them, learning how to feel them in ways that don’t overwhelm us, processing them, and then letting them go can support mental and emotional wellness.
4. Cultivate and savor positive emotions. We can cultivate positive emotions by noticing them when they spontaneously arise, seeking them out on a regular basis, and pausing to savor them. Positive emotions include calm, acceptance, curiosity, joy, gratitude, hope, happiness, kindness, inspiration, curiosity, love, excitement, compassion, awe, and a host of other emotions.
5. Be creative. When we are being creative, we are in the present moment. We are making something beautiful, even if we are creating something from the ashes of our grief about illness. We are immersed in generative activity. When we are being creative, we are sending a message to our brain that in this moment, we are safe, and our brain and body respond accordingly by activating a state of relaxation. Being creative may mean writing, journaling, taking a photograph, building something with clay, drawing, painting, baking, woodworking, playing an instrument, knitting, sewing, weaving, and endless other ways of creating.
We are all human beings, living in imperfect bodies. There are many things we can do to nurture a greater sense of well-being-- physically, emotionally, and mentally. Wellness exists on a continuum, and even when we have illness, there are things we can do to promote well-being. It’s possible to learn how to live well with illness.
Jen Johnson, MS, MFA, LCMHC is a mindfulness coach and therapist teaching people how to create a peaceful and inspired life that they love waking up to. Jen teaches online courses on mindfulness, creativity, and resilience. https://jenjohnson.com.