A Mindful Approach to Chronic Disease

Health refers to more than what physically affects the body. Health also includes mental and emotional wellbeing.

For people living with chronic or rare diseases, it’s important to consider how to take care of both the body and mind on a daily basis. These diseases can cause significant stress, as well as feelings of frustration and powerlessness. These feelings may be compounded by a sense of isolation and feelings of being alone.

A Mindfulness Practice

A Mindfulness Practice

To try a mindfulness practice, read or have someone else read you these instructions as you follow along.

As a professor and clinical psychologist, I’ve spent 15 years researching the positive impact of practicing mindfulness, and much of my training includes working with people living with chronic diseases. Through my work, I’ve seen how mindfulness can aid in both psychological and physical wellbeing.1-8

While mindfulness has recently gained popularity and many people have heard the term, many still may not be clear on what it entails. Mindfulness is a therapeutic intervention that trains attention and awareness. It is a practice of being conscious of the present moment and learning to respond to negative emotions with acceptance and kindness.

It’s important for people living with health conditions to recognize what they are feeling, instead of trying to push painful thoughts and emotions away, which can actually amplify them. For those living with serious medical conditions, mindfulness can help them accept and respond to difficult feelings, including fear, loneliness and sadness.5-8 By bringing mindfulness to emotions (and the thoughts that may underlie them), we can begin to see them more clearly and recognize that they are temporary. Although emotions may sometimes feel overwhelming and long lasting, they often actually only last for a short time — they rise and pass, just like waves in the ocean. So, when fear, loneliness or sadness arise, we can respond in a skillful way so we are not as overcome.

Another way mindfulness can help is by reminding us to focus on the present moment, which can be challenging. For many, including those affected by a chronic disease, the mind can wander to worrying about the past or the future, which can lead to stress, anxiety and fear.8-10

Fear of the future can often become a great source of stress.9,10 For example, people living with a rare lung disease called idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) experience significant stress due to the disease’s uncertain nature and concerns about what the future may hold.9,10 Mindfulness may help people living with the disease stay more rooted in the present moment instead of worrying about a future that does not yet exist. This does not mean we should not prepare for our future, however; it means that we are not hijacked by it. We can find positivity by bringing our attention back to the present.

Mindfulness encourages us to find peace and a sense of control over our situation, reflect on what is most meaningful and important, and treat ourselves and others with openness and compassion.

Although mindfulness is a relatively simple concept, it’s not easy. Mindfulness is an ongoing practice that takes time to develop. It’s important to be patient and kind to yourself and remember you are strong and capable. Mindfulness supports us in taking care of ourselves physically and emotionally and is not something we do alone. It can be helpful to reach out to family, friends, doctors, support groups or advocacy groups if you need help on your journey.

The Three Pillars of Mindfulness

The keys to practicing mindfulness are: Intention, Attention and Attitude.


Intention is knowing why you are practicing mindfulness. Reflect on what you truly care about by asking yourself: “What is important to me?”


Attention refers to the capacity of the mind to pay attention in the present moment.


Attitude refers to the mindset of your attention, one which is patient and kind.

1. Davidson RJ et al, Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosom Med. 2003–2004, Aug. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12883106
2. MacCoon, D. G., & Davidson, R. J. (2016). Reduced stress and inflammatory responsiveness in experienced meditators compared to a matched healthy control group. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 68, 117-25. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2016.02.013. PMCID: PMC4851883 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26970711
3. Yan Song et al, Mindfulness intervention in the management of chronic pain and psychological comorbidity: A meta-analysis, June 2014,. International Journal of Nursing Sciences. Pages 215–223. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352013214000490
4. F. Zeidan et al, Mindfulness meditation-related pain relief: Evidence for unique brain mechanisms in the regulation of pain. Neuroscience Letters. 2012 Apr 6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3580050
5. Keng, S.L., Smoski, M.J., Robins, C.J. (2011). Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: A review of empirical studies. Clinical Psychology Review, CPR-01165. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21802619
6. Hölzel BK, Hoge EA, Greve DN, Gard T, Creswell JD, Brown KW, Barrett LF, Schwartz C, Vaitl D, Lazar SW. Neural mechanisms of symptom improvements in generalized anxiety disorder following mindfulness training. Neuroimage Clin. 2013; 2:448-58. PMID: 24179799; PMCID: PMC3777795. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24179799
7. Hofmann, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., Witt, A. A., & Oh, D. (2010). The Effect of Mindfulness-Based Therapy on Anxiety and Depression: A Meta-Analytic Review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 78(2), 169–183. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2848393/
8. Giacomo Sgalla et al, Mindfulness-based stress reduction in patients with interstitial lung diseases: a pilot, single-centre observational study on safety and efficacy, Mar 2015. http://bmjopenrespres.bmj.com/content/2/1/e000065.full
9. Grupe, Dan W. et al, “Uncertainty and Anticipation in Anxiety,” Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 2013. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4276319/
10. Nolen-Hoeksema, Susan et al, “Rethinking Rumination,” Perspectives On Psychological Science, 2008. http://sonjalyubomirsky.com/wp-content/themes/sonjalyubomirsky/papers/NWL2008.pdf