Heightened sensitivities are a common symptom of fibromyalgia and if trying to manage the pain and fatigue is not enough, we also have to manage our sensitivity to noise, light, taste, smell and touch. Hopefully not all of these will be heightened all of the time but  it seems they’re likely to become more lively when we’re faced with anything that’s unfamiliar or uncomfortable and blow our senses through the roof – like having to wear a mask for instance! 

Restriction of breath, over-heating, steamed up specs, pressure across the face and around the ears  are quite unbearable for some of us, causing out-of-control feelings that overwhelm.  It’s a double edge sword because we have to protect against the potential killer virus, Covid 19. At times we’ll find ourselves in situations that our instinct is shouting at us “get out of here NOW – escape”.  For instance, a visit to the shops but you might be stuck in queue so you can’t!  Your heart is pounding out of your chest, your head is throbbing, breathing speeds up preparing you to flee! Your mind becomes a swirl of fear and anxiety and you enter a state of hypervigilance where everything becomes a threat as far as your brain is concerned. 

But you’re invisible – nobody can see your illness and all the emotional distress is literally behind a mask!

We’re now several months into living through a pandemic where we’ve been cut off from our loved ones, learnt to adapt to social distancing, whilst isolated we’ve tried to make sense of all the mixed messages and confusion, coped with the worry for our own health and that of our community.  We’re still in the midst of it all and in the back of our minds we’re preparing ourselves for whatever happens next. Stress overload or what?  

Oh! and did I mention we’re also living and managing a chronic illness – fibromyalgia?

Wouldn’t it be great if there was something that would let you press a pause button?  Well, thankfully there is something that may well help you to do this and something is better than nothing in these circumstances.  It’s a coping skill that can be practiced anywhere and instantly snap your mind out of the chaos, bring you out of the overwhelm and calm the senses whilst quietening the noise in your head.  It’s so simple to do and it’s all in your breath and grounding yourself.

When you calm your mind, the brain and the body follow suit allowing the breath to return to its normal rhythm. The heart stops pounding, the brain is un-hijacked and restores your sense of control and instantly interrupts the stress response.

Stress, as we all know is a major trigger for fibromyalgia flare-ups and it’s virtually impossible to avoid it whilst we live through these unprecedented and uncertain times.  When stress becomes chronic the symptoms are similar to fibromyalgia.  Sometimes it’s difficult to know the difference whether the dizziness, brain fog,  digestive problems, headaches, muscle pain, disrupted sleep and fatigue etc. are due to chronic stress or fibromyalgia.

Either way when you feel physical discomfort along with the worrying thoughts that run through your head, the brain will interpret this as danger and sound the alarm by activating the amygdala,  switching on the stress response.  When this happens your amygdala hijacks the brain and survival is its primary role, shutting down your rational thinking brain and leaving your physical and mental resources to get allocated ultimately to keep you alive.  This is a mechanism passed down from our ancestors who faced real life and death situations chasing tiger.  Today the very same stress response kicks in when we feel worried, pressured, disappointed, irritated or even the very thought of having to cope with wearing a mask and walk down the street dodging other people. This is the modern-day tiger!

 Chronic stress is a pre-curser to many ailments, it compromises the systems of the body and it tends to go hand in hand with fibromyalgia.  It makes sense that to manage fibromyalgia that you also must find ways to reduce the stress in your life. Grounding is a mindfulness practice where there is now an abundance of scientific evidence for mindfulness and the humongous range of benefits, including pain reduction and stress management.

Mindfulness helps us to live the life we intend for ourselves and trains the brain to cut loose from the negative thought loops and interrupt the fibromyalgia-stress cycle.  It gives a fibromyalgia sufferer’s mind and  body a chance to refocus, reset and heal. Healing does not get a look in when we are in the stress mode, so it makes sense to find ways to manage stress and mindfulness and meditation can do just that!

Sounds like a dream I know, but all I can say that this is a reality for myself and millions of others. I started to practice and trained as a practitioner several years ago and it changed my life and the way I learnt to cope with fibromyalgia. Yes! It takes time and effort, discipline but no exertion, patience is the key and a commitment to self-care and compassion.  I was diagnosed almost six years ago, although had many symptoms for much longer and during the early days it was hard to keep at it and persevere.  If I recall it was about a year before I noticed any significant difference and this is the point that spurs you on. It got me through my time in hospital as a cancer patient and my speedy recovery!

Now I can’t imagine life without mindfulness, meditation and breathing exercises –  the focus is on the mind-body connection and various other practices that encourage healing at a deeper level – as opposed to treating the symptoms alone.  There is now a great deal of medical interest and evidence is revealing that this is the way forward for the treatment of fibromyalgia and for any self-care plan to complement any medication treatment which we now know is only a short term fix for many cases of primary fibromyalgia.  

Give it a go, you’ve got nothing to lose! You can make a start by practicing how to use your breath  as a remote control.  Normally we don’t often pay attention to our breath but by giving intention to it our breath can instantly switch you into alert mode with short, quick shallow breaths or it can calm and relax you by taking slower deeper breaths.

A few minutes practice of “breathing space” regularly throughout the day soon turns intentional breathing into a habit and the benefits are well worth the effort.

Begin by allowing your awareness to settle on this breathing exercise by taking a breath in through your nose to a count of four and slowly exhale through your mouth for a count of seven. Notice the sensation of your breath and try to practice breathing in from your abdomen, place one hand there to feel the expansion and feel it subside with each out breath.

Even just for a few moments will immediately begin to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and trigger the feeling of calm. Continue for a few moments and then return to your normal breath. This is a good time to notice your habitual rhythm and check out if you are naturally a shallow breather, if so make an intention to change this!

To practice Grounding and to feel yourself becoming centred and more in control, begin by bringing your awareness to your sight and acknowledge five things you can see in your immediate surroundings.  This brings you straight into the present moment and out of autopilot, building a roadblock on any time travelling in your mind, any ruminating over the past or worrying about the future.

Next acknowledge four things you can hear; this may include silence but try to focus on the sounds outside of your head.

Followed by shifting your awareness to three things you can feel; maybe start with your feet on the ground and notice the temperature, whether you feel hot or cold.

Now acknowledge two things you can smell; maybe in the air around you.

Finally bring your awareness to your taste noticing one thing you can taste and what does the inside of your mouth taste like.

So whenever you find yourself lost in the thought loop, stuck in the fibro-stress cycle or feeling that you’re about to lose it with a mask on your face, press your pause button, take a few deep slow breaths and ground yourself.  Then if like me, until you can get yourself to a place and scream your head off!   

Author Jok Saunders, founder of the Fibro Clinic South West    

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