Mindfulness: Benefits for Fibromyalgia

Awareness Without Judgment

Dougal Waters/Getty Images

Increasing your mindfulness -- how aware you are of what's going on with your body and in your surroundings -- may improve your fibromyalgia symptoms, according to research published in the spring of 2015.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a mental state that involves being focused on and aware of the present, while acknowledging and accepting your own feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations without judgment.

It's a therapeutic technique; however, it's study and use in fibromyalgia does NOT imply that fibromyalgia is a mental disorder.

Mindfulness is used to treat a wide variety of physical problems, including chronic pain, high blood pressure, heart disease, insomnia, and digestive difficulties. It's also believed to be effective against depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and many other mental-health issues.

The study, which included nearly 5,000 people, cited a growing body of research suggesting that mindfulness may be a beneficial approach to fibromyalgia. Areas in which it appeared to help most were depression and quality of life. Researchers set out to look at the relationship between the Revised Fibromyalgia Impact Questionnaire (FIQR, a common test for quantifying the severity of the illness) and the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ).

What is the FFMQ?

The FFMQ is a test that examines different measures of mindfulness, which are:

  1. Observing,
  2. Describing,
  3. Acting with awareness,
  4. Non-judging of inner experience,
  5. Non-reactivity to inner experience.

It asks you to rate how true statements are for you. Here are some examples of statements:

  • When I'm walking, I deliberately notice the sensations of my body moving.
  • I perceive my feelings and emotions without having to react to them.
  • I don't pay attention to what I'm doing because I'm daydreaming, worrying, or otherwise distracted.

Certainly, fibromyalgia symptoms can significantly affect your answers – who among us hasn't found it hard to stay focused on a task?

However, our symptoms don't always lower our scores. Researchers were surprised to find that participants with fibromyalgia scored unusually high in the Observing category. They say further research is need to determine whether this is truly a rating of mindfulness or due to non-mindful observations (those with judgments attached, for example.)

The high score in Observing isn't a surprise to me. In my experience and that of many others I've heard from, we tend to become excellent observers of how we're feeling at any given moment. We have to be! If we're not, we're more likely to over exert ourselves and bring on a crash, or end up in a bad situation with symptoms flaring. We have to be aware of our pain levels, fatigue, cognitive function/dysfunction, and energy all the time.

On top of that, we need to pay close attention to how much sensory input we're dealing with, because we can become overloaded and end with a panic attack.

Sadly, I also know that a lot of us are critical of our bodies and their weaknesses, which is the opposite of being mindful. Some people blame or deride themselves for not being able to do what they used to or what other people can do. Those with depression may get down on themselves for their feelings and their inability to shake them.

My Experience with Mindfulness

I learned about mindfulness back in college, when I took a meditation class. I'd needed one more credit to maintain full-time status and thought, "Mandatory relaxation time? Sounds good!" It wound up being a staple in my schedule until graduation.

One of the key things I learned was how to distance myself from my feelings and physical sensations and simply observe them. It's difficult at first, but gets easier with practice and, for me, eventually became second nature. I don't judge my thoughts and feelings (for the most part, anyway.) Instead, I'm able to acknowledge them and deal with them.

It's helped me deal with the stress of college and the career that came afterward. It's helped me sort things out to make good choices. It got me through 31 hours of unmedicated labor with my first child and has been immeasurably beneficial as I've dealt with chronic illness and pain.

While I sometimes do feel guilty about the things I can't do and occasionally chastise myself for certain feelings, I'm usually able to put a stop to it quickly and pull myself out of a negative place.

Does it take the pain away, give me tons of energy, or clear my foggy brain? Not directly, no. However, it does help me deal with the pain, the loss of function, and the emotions that come from them. It's a huge benefit to me overall in the process my life greatly. And as we know, less stress means a lower symptom load.

When I took the FFMQ, I got an overall score of 4.1 out of 5. My highest score was in Observe (4.5) and my Act with Awareness was lowest (3.8). Fibro fog – I blame you for that! In all seriousness, though, I'm glad to know where I could use some improvement and will be working on it.

Take the FFMQ

Would you like to see how you score on the FFMQ? You can take it online here:

If your scores are low in any area, you may want to discuss this with your doctor and consider mindfulness therapy to help improve your life. You can also learn a lot here:

Sources:

Jones KD, et al. Explore. 2015 Apr 28. pii: S1550-8307(15)00067-1. Fibromyalgia impact and mindfulness characteristics in 4986 people with fibromyalgia.

HelpGuide.org and Harvard health publications. All rights reserved. Benefits of mindfulness: practices for improving emotional and physical well-being. Accessed May 2015.

Continue Reading