A couple questions I often hear as a chiropractor are, “How can I help myself in the healing process?” and, “How will I know if I’m getting better?” The answer to both questions is, “Mindfulness”. What is mindfulness? It is the “quality or state of being conscious or aware of something”. How does mindfulness relate to healing as a chiropractic patient? Chiropractic adjustments serve to remove barriers to healing by re-aligning joints so nerves can communicate properly. Mindfulness helps you to be more aware of your current health status and helps you take better care of your body (and mind) to prevent further stress or injury during the healing process.
What is the opposite of mindfulness? It is detaching from yourself or disconnecting from others or your surroundings. It is being oblivious, for example, to the fact you’re slouching and bending your head forward as you’re using your smartphone. You’re unaware that this posture is causing discomfort to your neck, back and shoulders, or maybe you’re choosing to ignore it. Over time, what you call “comfortable” is when your postural muscles are dis-engaged, so more pressure is put on spinal bones (vertebrae and pelvis) and joints. You don’t notice it’s making your breathing shallower. It doesn’t begin to dawn in your conscious mind how this posture is making your heart work harder to pump blood, reducing the effectiveness of your lungs, and interfering with the digestion process.
To be mindful of your body posture, you could sit up straight and meditate on all the good things you’re doing for yourself while in the good posture. You could say to yourself, “My ears are over my shoulders, which takes the strain off my neck. My shoulders are pulled back, which helps me breathe easier and relaxes my upper back muscles. I’m sitting upright, which activates my core muscles and relieves stress on my lower spine. My posture helps me digest my food properly and helps me circulate life-giving blood throughout my body. With the flow of oxygen and blood, I can think clearer, have more energy, help my immune system, and nourish my body for growth, regeneration, functioning and healing”. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the activities in the body in a given moment and they are worth repeating again and again. Thinking these thoughts can make you more appreciative of your amazing body and more willing to help it out with good posture and lifestyle choices.
No time to meditate, you say? Then remind yourself as many times as possible to check on your posture. If it’s good, give yourself an imaginary pat on the back. If not, correct yourself and know that in making the effort to correct your posture now, you’ll start getting the benefits sooner rather than later. How often should you check on yourself? As often as it takes, and for as long as it takes until good posture becomes your default posture. By the way, you should still check up on yourself even if you do meditate. Meditating is like going to church. Mindfulness is practising what is preached even when you’re not in church. Similarly, chiropractic adjusts the spine so you CAN sit up straight more easily, but it’s up to you to actually DO it.
Mindfulness is extremely valuable in helping with the functioning, healing and development of the mind. Here, we’re talking about learning, memory, reasoning, emotions, impulse control, sensitivity, reactivity, habits and obsessions. When something is painful or difficult, we may choose to be in denial. Denial that the problem exists, denial that it is so bad, or denial that the problem affects you personally. This is a coping mechanism which may help the psyche or ego when you cannot deal with the problem head-on. The problem, however, doesn’t go away just because you’re turning a blind eye to it. In fact, the problem festers and grows and you will need to employ more strategies to actively avoid “seeing” the problem, to smother it, or to suppress your natural tendency to be mindful of situations that need help.
Distractions are a common strategy to avoid being mindful of a pain or difficulty that needs attention. Distractions tend to be activities that are frivolous, pleasurable and generally non-consequential, as in they don’t really accomplish much to improve your situation. Distractions include screen time (BIG TIME), gossiping, meddling in other people’s business, fidgeting, excessive preening, daydreaming, picking fights with siblings, excess worrying about the future, lamenting about the past, etc. This is not to say that you can never do these pastimes… you can, but being mindful is know when you’re doing them to avoid something else. Distractions, in their mildest form, are ways to procrastinate. Who hasn’t done this? There’s a pile of work or homework to do, and we spend a half hour (or more) checking emails (most of it junk), social media feeds (wishing we were on vacation, too or judging ridiculous comments by ignorant trolls) or watching mindless videos.
Worse still, is when these distractions seem to fill a void in you. If schoolwork or sports seem too difficult and you’re struggling, but you feel like a hero when you play video games, then why bother with the real world? The same can be said of adults with financial difficulties who are drawn to big discounts promised by online retailers. Advertisers prey on people’s weaknesses and lure them with promises of easy weight-loss, get-rich-quick schemes, and pills or potions to make pains or problems disappear. The whole pharmaceutical industry is full of distractions. “Stomach pains? Take a pill. It doesn’t matter what caused the pain. Continue to eat poorly and buy more of our products!!” “Bad back? Of course! It’s an expected part of aging. Have some pain meds first. When that’s not enough, let’s do surgery. Even Tiger Woods did it, so if it’s good enough for him, it should be good enough for you. Why pay out-of-pocket for chiropractic care to align the spine when the government will pay in full for surgery? Besides, it’s such a hassle to keep going to the chiropractor and being nagged to exercise and sit up straight.” Distractions are insidious because they are easier or more pleasurable than doing what’s necessary or in your best interest.
Mindfulness is a great way to get started on changing your mindset, posture, behaviours and lifestyle. If the pain or difficulty is relatively small, you can employ lifestyle changes, including chiropractic, and get benefits even if you’re only mildly mindful of what you’re doing. Being more mindful will help break bad habits so you can improve sooner, notice the positive changes more easily, and encourage you to continue even if you’re not feeling each and every improvement along the way. Mindfulness is absolutely essential when the pain or difficulty feels insurmountable or so entrenched in your body or psyche that you feel you’d have to rip yourself to pieces to let it go. To cope with a problem this big, one might suppress awareness so forcefully that either it becomes internalized (“this is me” or “I am broken beyond repair”) or one disassociates or disconnects from reality (psychosis, self-mutilation). A problem this big can arise from severe trauma or chronic pain, be it physical, mental, emotional or chemical. Examples of such trauma or pain include child abuse, sexual assault, shaming, neglect, PTSD, violence, torture, drugs, disability, constant fear, anxiety or grief. You can get trapped in this mindset and fight to keep your problems and limitations even as you say you’re trying to get help. With this kind of mindset, you can undermine anyone’s attempts to help you.
You are not your diagnosis. Your problem (i.e. hyperactivity, dyslexia, depression, fibromyalgia, cancer, obesity, OCD, child abuse or birth trauma survivor) does not need to define you. Mindfulness, in this case, is giving credit to the whole you, as in, “I am a daughter, loved by my parents. I have a family I love. I have a pain that affects my life now, but I can still do x, y, and z. My problems are now, but won’t necessarily affect me the same way later. I am taking measures to change my situation. I love x,y and z about my life. My cells are regenerating every moment in time. I am doing what I can to build better connections in my brain. Chiropractic adjustments are helping to make this process easier. I am thinking clearer and my body is working better, bit by bit…” and so on.
It helps to be in community with others who will help you establish and maintain a helpful mindset. This includes health professionals, family, teachers, friends, support people, employers, etc who have a forward mindset as you take steps to improve your situation. This doesn’t mean wallowing in your problems, “Woe is me!” or, “If you think your problem is bad, hear about mine”. Instead, see your pain or problems for what they are, at this particular point in time. Accept your feelings, and then do what you can to change yourself or your perception of the problem. It sounds simple, so why doesn’t everyone do it? Because awareness includes connecting with your feelings, and being vulnerable. Often if we’re avoiding awareness, it’s because the feeling is too painful to bear. With mindfulness, perspective, distance, time and maturity, what might have been too painful previously, is not necessarily as painful right now. You may not have been ready to heal or let go of the emotional trauma of a terrible tragedy the day after it happened, but after a month or two, you could be ready to start the process.
Mindfulness is about taking the time to assess where you are now, deciding if you’re in a good space or not, and then choosing to do what’s in your best interest. It’s easier to not be mindful and to continue habitual behaviours. If your habitual behaviours are beneficial by nature (good nutrition, healthy lifestyle, regular chiropractic adjustments, positive thoughts), then mindfulness will help you feel grateful and content, or help you increase your social or spiritual awareness and connectivity, if you so choose. If you want to change your situation through establishing new habits, mindfulness and frequent repetition of good habits is necessary.