How I Use Meditation to Manage Symptoms
The symptoms of psoriasis can be relentless. The burning sensation on your arms, the dry, prickling sensation that accompanies rough fabrics, the pain, and most of all (for me) the itching that’s so persistent it can keep you up at night. Especially in the winter, I used to squirm all day long to avoid the itching. I dreaded having to take showers because my skin was so dry afterwards that every single movement would set off a new cascade of itching and flaking (not to mention the long moisturizing routine that accompanies each shower, or the time spent in the shower having to apply medicated shampoos… but I digress!). All of these symptoms used to drive me totally bonkers, but I have one extra tool now that helps me manage: meditation.
Five years ago I took a 6 month long backpacking trip and spent a significant amount of time in Nepal where I volunteered in orphanages. Toward the end of my trip I connected with fellow volunteers who talked about a 10-day meditation course they had taken outside the city of Kathmandu. The reviews ranged from life changing to absolute torture. Prior to leaving home, I had toyed with the idea of taking a meditation course, and this seemed like a great opportunity to learn something new and challenge myself. I signed myself up.
The rules of the course mirrored those of Buddhism (though the course is entirely secular). The most significant of these was to abstain from telling lies, which during the course is covered by the tenant of Noble Silence. For 10 full days, you are not permitted to speak or communicate with any of the other students in any way. There’s also no reading, no journaling, no music, and certainly no phones or internet. For 10 full days, you simply sit with yourself, observing your breath and your body. As I sat listening to these instructions before the start of the course, I wondered if I had made a terrible mistake.
The type of meditation offered at this course is called Vipassana, and it is not your average meditation. There is no aim of relaxation or stress relief, there is only the observation of your thoughts and bodily sensations, and an attempt to dispassionately observe them. They call this equanimity. The main theory behind Vipassana is that if you can learn to practice mindfulness, and not associate “uncomfortable” bodily sensations with negativity, but to simply accept what is, then you can live peacefully in each moment. Of course, this aligns with the core belief of Buddhism that all suffering is caused by cravings and aversions. We’re either running away from sensations or running toward sensations. If I’m too cold, I want to be warm… if I’m too warm, I want to be cool… but now my nose itches, and my foot has fallen asleep, on and on. Vipassana is the practice of accepting all bodily sensations with equanimity and finding peace through mindfulness.
How This Applies to Psoriasis
After returning home from Nepal and a course of antibiotics later, I had a terrible flare-up of my psoriasis. Where other meditation techniques had been unsuccessful for me, Vipassana gave me the tools to ride out the intense itching and pain without feeling completely helpless. It was also instrumental in dealing with feelings of anxiety and depression, which I had in spades. Of course, Vipassana is not about trying to get away from these feelings but to live in equanimity with them. Interestingly enough, the leader of my 10-day course, S.N. Goenka, had initially turned to this meditation practice to find solace from crippling migraines. He figured if he learned meditation, he could help ease his pain. Instead, he learned to live with the pain, making peace with every sensation and disconnecting physical pain from the emotional response (I think I have a few lifetimes to go before I achieve this!). Over the years I’ve since met many people who have used meditative practices like Vipassana, yoga, or simple breathing exercises to be more mindful and cope with chronic illness.
For the very low price of $199 you too can achieve enlightenment! Just kidding. There are Vipassana centres all over the world, and they are all entirely donation based. If you find the practice helpful, you donate at the end of the course so someone else can have the same experience. Every staff member and teacher at a course is a volunteer.
As a final note, I should share that my trip to Nepal helped my psoriasis in one additional way. I caught lice volunteering at my last orphanage placement, and rather than try to find treatment in rural Nepal, I elected for shaving my head. After about 2 weeks of sun exposure, my scalp psoriasis was totally clear. So I guess you could say Nepal was good for my skin (even if it wasn’t good to my GI tract…).
Has meditation helped you cope with your symptoms? Let us know in the comments!
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