Mindfulness and Asthma: What mindfulness is, why it’s not some weird revolution, and how it can impact your asthma—and life.

If you are anything like me (and being me is, even if interesting, weird, to say the least), your first reaction to the term mindfulness, or even hearing it explained, was something along the lines of “WTF is this nonsense?” Except I used a more colourful word than nonsense in my head, probably.It’s been a few years since I actually learned what mindfulness means though, and started reframing the “WTF is this nonsense?” factor in my head by exploring the concept a bit more off and on—more off and on until recently. I meditated a fair bit in high school (taught by a friend and did not know much of what I was doing… not that you need to!), but there is far more to mindfulness than meditation, not to mention in high school I’d never even been dropped the term mindfulness. Let’s be honest: it kind of (if, like I said, you are like me) sounds like bogus.
So, let’s get the bogus-sounding stuff out of the way.

What is mindfulness, and why is it not nonsense?
Mindfulness is simple: paying attention to the stuff—yep, the stuff—that’s going on around you and inside you. It’s also about being non-judgemental towards your observations, thoughts, and feelings.1 The aim is to notice more, be more present in the things that we do.

Another core facet of mindfulness is being non-judgemental towards your observations, thoughts, and feelings. Paying attention, observing, but not judging or criticizing.1 This is important, because by distancing ourselves, to an extent, from our feelings—while still expressing them—allows us to observe the situation unfolding and then choose how to react or respond!

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been exploring the (super easy to read!) book “Smiling Mind: Mindfulness Made Easy” (Jane Martino and James Tutton), but also sifting though academic research on mindfulness. It’s not hard to tell that I’m into doing a bit of database digging to find credible information (the byproduct of spending 5 years in school studying health and fitness, where misinformation is rampant!).  Let’s explore.

What does mindfulness look like?
Most simply, mindfulness involves taking time to “be present”. To notice things around you, and inside you. To start, it can be as simple as checking in with your feelings a few times a day. Smiling Mind recommends tying this to an activity—check in whenever you stand up, or sit down, or open a door 1. Mindfulness is also typically a lot about breathing, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

In the books: Research on Mindfulness and Asthma
In a study including patients with a variety of chronic conditions (including 14 with asthma or allergies)2, physical and psychological symptoms of disease occurred less often (by psychological, consider the thoughts you have regarding your asthma on a daily basis, not that the researchers perceive asthma to be “in your head”—we know it’s not, although it’s well known among patients and well-educated physicians that being unable to breathe well is a bit anxiety provoking.3) This could be due to better ability to cope with stress and the effects of stress and other emotions on asthma (a topic I’ll cover in the future!). The study demonstrated that 70% of participants in the study used the mindfulness techniques regularly a year after the study—so, it’s not that difficult to maintain.2 We all know that asthma can affect your quality of life, and those who practiced mindfulness regularly noted an increase in health-related quality of life. The study is realistic though, in that it notes the social support of being in a study with other participants with chronic disease may have been helpful in the results of the research!2

Looking specifically at young adults with asthma, it was noted in another study that mindfulness can decrease levels of “body vigilance”, or, how individuals perceive sensations within their own bodies—including asthma symptoms—and how much mental energy or time is spent “attending” to those symptoms. This study found those who were more mindful in everyday activities—attending to them more fully in thought, or mindfully!—acted with more awareness, rather than increasing focus on the symptoms—which often may induce panic.3 The study acknowledges that not being able to breathe well is an anxiety-provoking symptom—or at least thought—which may happen on a daily basis.3 The ability to assess symptoms of asthma without emotion or self-judgement promotes the ability to react thoughtfully to your body, rather than on ‘auto-pilot’ and over-reactively, can be—in my opinion—key to creating a manageable coexistence between your thoughts and your asthma. It will never replace your medication if you have asthma, but, mindfulness can simply make all kinds of things more tolerable.

Everyday examples.

Does grabbing a snack, siting back down at the computer—or TV, if that’s how you roll—and ten minutes later realizing your snack is gone without remembering enjoying it sound familiar? Snaccidents happen people. Eating mindfully—that is, focusing on your meal or snack and actually enjoying it—can be just one positive effect of becoming more mindful in your life. Mindfulness is relevant, even if that’s just for the joy of remembering more of the cookies I eat.

We’re also all used to going about our lives a bit on autopilot. I never leave home without my earphones, but at one point in university, I realized that wandering campus with earphones in constantly was actually a barrier to being mindful—I blocked out the things going on around me, on a nearly constant basis—and then focused on the noise in my earphones to block out my own thoughts instead of acknowledging them. I realize now that while sometimes, yeah some “quiet time” in my head is important (I have ADHD, my brain still doesn’t understand quiet time), but that music is meant to connect people… I now try to focus more on the music I’m listening to, or what’s going on around me, rather than using music as an internal distraction.>

Effects of mindfulness in my world.
When I practice mindfulness regularly—reflecting, acting with intention, and slowing down a bit—I feel calmer, more able to tackle problems, and more in control of my responses to people. I feel more creative, or that I’m able to use my creativity better. I feel like my interactions with the world around me, and the people in it, are a lot more meaningful because I’m thinking more and not on autopilot!

Of course, given that I also have ADHD, these things are often a bigger challenge for those of us with attention problems. However, if it can work for me in all of my distraction and impulsivity—it’s worth a try, isn’t it? It doesn’t take a lot of time—actually, it can help you use time more wisely! It doesn’t have to cost anything.

I’m not a perfect practitioner of mindfulness—fortunately, mindfulness is all about not being perfect and being cool with that! Have I noticed an effect on my asthma? Well, not that I’ve noticed, but I know mindfulness won’t change my asthma… it will just change how I respond to its role in my life.

Being mindful with asthma.
Mindfulness, as I wrote above, is often really centered on breathing. That poses a bit of a challenge for those of us with asthma, doesn’t it? Just because mindfulness is “simple” doesn’t quite mean that it’s easy. In my next post, I’ll explain the role of meditation in mindfulness, how that fits when you have breathing issues, and what meditation actually is—or can be. While the non-breathing-challenged world makes meditation all about breathing, i’ll explain why that is… and why it does not have to be.

Do you have any interest in mindfulness? Did anything in this post stir up a question or two? Still think it’s nonsense? Let me know in the comments below!

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Asthma.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.
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