Hereditary Angioedema and Mindfulness

mindfulnessThese last few months have been rough for me. Despite being in an overall great place mentally, I have encountered a lot of stress between moving states, starting a new job, one hospitalization, road trips to see my family, etc. These things might not be that stressful on my mind-state, but my increase in HAE attacks shows that I am being affected, even if it’s on a level that I cannot notice any other way. For those that do not know, Hereditary Angioedema is a rare and life threatening genetic blood disease affecting about 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 50,000 people worldwide. Here’s an explanation from the HAE Association:

HAE patients have a defect in the gene that controls a blood protein called C1 Inhibitor. The genetic defect results in production of either inadequate or non-functioning C1-Inhibitor protein. Normal C1-Inhibitor helps to regulate the complex biochemical interactions of blood-based systems involved in disease fighting, inflammatory response and coagulation. Because defective C1-Inhibitor does not adequately perform its regulatory function, a biochemical imbalance can occur and produce unwanted peptides that induce the capillaries to release fluids into surrounding tissue, thereby causing edema.

People that suffer with hereditary angioedema often experience many health traumas and major hospitalizations early on in life. Considering this, the potential for generalized anxiety disorder and PTSD are very high. This is an area where there is very little dialogue (at least so far) happening in the medical field. So many of us are used to just having to deal with this disease, even encountering doctors that often misdiagnose us or question what we are feeling. We are used to becoming very strong individuals (I like to think of ourselves as warriors 😉 ) and come up with our own ways of handling the stress, anxiety, and trauma. A whole other can of worms is the tendency for HAE patients to develop a codependency addiction, but I will save that one for another time.

My goal here today is to explore what we can do to survive and heal these moments of intensity in our lives. I have been making the conclusion over and over again, that besides my yoga practice, what keeps me sane is the practice of mindfulness meditation. Psychology Today has a great article on mindfulness meditation and how to practice it. The best and most simple explanation that I have found on the method is from Vietnamese Zen Buddhist Monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. He says:

The exercise is simply to identify the in-breath as in-breath and the out-breath as the out-breath. When you breathe in, you know that this is your in-breath. When you breathe out, you are mindful that this is your out-breath.

Just recognize: this is an in-breath, this is an out-breath. Very simple, very easy. In order to recognize your in-breath as in-breath, you have to bring your mind home to yourself. What is recognizing your in-breath is your mind, and the object of your mind—the object of your mindfulness—is the in-breath…

So the object of your mindfulness is your breath, and you just focus your attention on it. Breathing in, this is my in-breath. Breathing out, this is my out-breath. When you do that, the mental discourse will stop. You don’t think anymore. You don’t have to make an effort to stop your thinking; you bring your attention to your in-breath and the mental discourse just stops. That is the miracle of the practice. You don’t think of the past anymore. You don’t think of the future. You don’t think of your projects, because you are focusing your attention, your mindfulness, on your breath.

img_1289It is that simple. The beauty of this simplicity is that there is no excuse not to cultivate it. The breath is always there so this practice is always available to us. We don’t need some elaborate alter, a fancy meditation cushion, or a zen gong alarm clock. All we need is the breath and the intention to become aware of it. I firmly believe that this is a practice everyone can benefit from, not just people suffering with HAE or any other trauma. When we cultivate more inner peace, we are contributing to the overall peace of the world. And who doesn’t think we could all benefit from that?

Now, for my fellow swell buddies– When do we meditate? Ideally we create a consistent practice for the same time each day, preferably right in the morning. But there are many other times too.

  • Those moments when you’re experiencing airway paranoia. You know the times– “What’s that tickle in my throat?” “Is my airway closing?” “Is this just a sore throat?” “AHHHH Intubation!” I know many people can relate to this, even if some have never had an airway swell. Unless your airway is actually closing, we can all take five minutes to sit and breathe. Another amazing thing about this practice is that we can all experience heightened awareness  and can better determine if this is an actual attack, or if we are just freaking out.
  • The ER. Oh yes. We are all veryyyyyyy familiar with these! Sometimes they are places where we find a true sense of peace, more often than not though, they are really intense and stressful places. Finding the right doctor. Knowing more about your disease than the people who are sticking needles in you. Hearing other people crying or wailing or vomiting. The florescent lights. The constant beeping. Even here we can take the time to pause and connect with our breath.
  • When the insecure thought tangents start. “Will this person accept me when they find out I have this disease?” “Will I pass this on to my kids?” “Am I wrong for passing this on to my kids?” “Am I bipolar because I’m freaking the F out?” “Is it wrong to feel scared?” “Does anyone understand?” Unfortunately this inner dialogue is a side-effect of trauma and a process most of us have to work through. When we take the moment to pause and breathe, we can allow ourselves to detach  from the negative thought stream. We can at least look at them as if they are not us, but just a thought we are having. They will pass.

There are many other times when we can use this practice to our benefit, but we all need to learn to be our own judge of that. I am not perfect. I am not in a place of perfect peace about Hereditary Angioedema. In fact, this blog is coming out of a very long night of an emotional breakdown. I was completely and utterly exhausted and yet, I could not fall asleep. Which starts the very vicious cycle of emotional distress. All the negative thought patterns start arising, the anxiety kicks in, I become upset and cry. Which makes me only fear swelling more to point where I eventually do start to swell. My point in being honest is that these difficult moments will come. Again and again. Breakdowns and pain will happen. ER visits are likely. Wanting to give up will happen. But through mindfulness and learning how to be with ourselves, we can be happier. We can be healthy in many other ways. We can be secure in who we are, and we can cultivate a sense of inner peace.

Living with Hereditary Angioedema is not easy and sometimes we are not always capable of being these amazing and strong warriors. We need to allow ourselves to be supported. We need to take partners that love us and are willing to put up with the antics. We need to take care of our bodies. We need to look at the food we eat as medicine. We need to exercise and stretch carefully. We need to live this life to the fullest. We need to give back an help others. We need to be grateful. And we need our breath.

Dare to Be

When a new day begins, dare to smile gratefully.

When there is darkness, dare to be the first to shine a light.

When there is injustice, dare to be the first to condemn it.

When something seems difficult, dare to do it anyway.

When life seems to beat you down, dare to fight back.

When there seems to be no hope, dare to find some.

When you’re feeling tired, dare to keep going.

When times are tough, dare to be tougher.

When love hurts you, dare to love again.

When someone is hurting, dare to help them heal.

When another is lost, dare to help them find the way.

When a friend falls, dare to be the first to extend a hand.

When you cross paths with another, dare to make them smile.

When you feel great, dare to help someone else feel great too.

When the day has ended, dare to feel as you’ve done your best.

Dare to be the best you can –

At all times, Dare to be!
― Steve Maraboli

 

 

For more information on Hereditary Angioedema and how you can help, please visit the HAEA webiste.

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The Darkest Versions of Ourselves

I have a saying that somehow always sobers me up from the most stressful situations. It goes: “We are all capable of being the darkest versions of ourselves”. This isn’t intended to be a self-indulgent or depressing statement; it is a rational fact. Each day situations arise where we are faced to make decisions about how or what we FEEL. Because after all, we are the ones that get to choose our emotions. Choose our emotions? Sounds crazy, right? If you look at any given situation from one angle, it can be a horrible, damaging, and even traumatizing event. But if you switch your perspective, it can be a lesson, an opportunity, or even a humorous phenomenon.

Everyday there is an opportunity to allow stress, whether it be one particular matter or a snowballing accumulation of things, to get the better of us. One little trigger and we are set off into a deep and dark place that can take tremendous effort to climb out of. For those of us that are lucky, we can catch it before we go too far and we can sort of hop out of it and brush ourselves off. It is always that one specific moment where we are hooked; where the downward spiral begins. The tibetan word for this is shenpa. The usual translation for shenpa is “attachment” but it is much easier for me to understand it as “being hooked”.

When I’m in the midst of anger, trying desperately to validate MY aggressive emotions, I hear “…the darkest versions of ourselves,” and somehow these emotions that I was trying so hard to cling to, begin to dissipate. This is because once you recognize the fact that are hooked, it is much harder for shenpa to have power over you. I can step back and look at how just the sensation of being hooked can cascade into the most grisly place, making me the darkest version of myself. 

For me, just remembering this saying can help. However, there are times when it takes much more effort. Pema Chödrön is one of the most well known American tibetan buddhist teachers out there. I find that her practices are really some of the few that genuinely work for me during intense times of stress. From her book, Taking The Leap, she suggests the following steps for working with shenpa:

  1. Acknowledge you’re hooked (with humor, if possible).
  2. Pause, take three conscious breaths, and lean in to the energy (with kindness, if possible).
  3. Relax and move on.

Read more about shenpa and Pema Chödrön’s view on getting unhooked here:

http://shambhalasun.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1610&Itemid=0

The ups and downs of stress and emotions are apart of life. My point in writing this blog was mostly for my own personal healing. Genuinely admitting that we can all go to that place, the darkest place; that I go to that place… it’s part of what makes us human. But with work and dedication, we can instead become the best versions of ourselves.

Happy unhooking 😉

Less doing, more being. Less talking, more seeing.

Inspired by my latest Facebook stalking endeavors, I kept having the “less doing, more being” mantra come into my mind. Social media outlets have become a source of complaining and a vessel to air out our dirty laundry to the world and apparently I have quite a few “friends” that love to do this. I have firm beliefs that the less we TALK about our “feelings” the more clearly we can view the emotional process of what we are compelled to rant about in the first place. We can attain more clarity about ourselves the more that we choose to turn inward and just be with whatever unsettling thought or emotion arises instead of projecting them outward into the world.

This leads me to touch on the topic of meditation. I love to be an advocate for Vipassana style meditation, (you know, the tedious and frustrating method where you sit with unwavering perfect posture, and focus only on the sensation of your breath) but the truth is, I go weeks and even months without “sitting”. However, from my own personal experience I can say with confidence that this need to whine and complain that has become so wired in our mentality decreases. Everything begins to seem more clear, more simple, and the solutions to our everyday problems seem less complex.

The basic gist of Vipassana meditation, or mindfulness meditation, is to be aware of all sensations throughout the body without judging them or shifting your focus, simply just being with them while maintaining focus on your natural breath. Then turning your focus to the most minute, miniscule yet conceivable point of breath and sensation that you can, and continuing to go back to this point of focus despite the constant uprising of mental chatter.

I found a great post from Urban Monk on Vipassana style meditation for beginners. Check it out here:

http://buddhist-meditation-techniques.com/vipassana-insight-meditation/

Despite my “anti-complaining” campaign, I am human and I do enjoy the occasional “In your face” rants. However, I think we can all benefit from becoming a little more private with our emotions, and learn to retrain our brains to develop the urge to turn inward instead of projecting outward, because really, do we need to know how horrible your ex is? 😉

Namaste!