Double the Suffering – How Negative Thoughts About Psoriasis Make Things Worse
I just got back from a mini-vacation to one of my favorite places, Point Pelee National Park. In late spring the park is a very popular place for bird watchers, and in the late summer, the monarch butterfly migration draws crowds as well. But as you slip into fall, the park is mostly quiet, and you can spend hours alone in the forest. While the woods may have been quiet, my mind was often very loud. Strangely, I caught myself many times thinking about psoriasis – “Ugh, look at all these plaques. I’m so itchy. I wonder if my Derm referral has gone through... maybe I should call? I bet they forgot to put it through!” Even though my body spent four days in the forest, my mind was often somewhere else.
The double-edged sword of mindfulness
I credit my meditation practice for this ability to catch myself lost in thought. The hours you put in “on the cushion” are meant to make you more mindful “off the cushion”. This is an incredible gift, but it can be overwhelming to discover just how often your mind is stuck on a hamster wheel of negativity – churning out an inner monologue of dissatisfaction – swinging from pity to anger to anxiety to despair to “what are we having for lunch? I’m hungry. I hate being hungry. Maybe I’ll have a sandwich? Ugh, but I had a sandwich yesterday. I should try to lose weight,” and so on and so forth. And when the inner critic turns its eye to psoriasis, we suffer twice.
Doubling up on suffering
Here’s the thing, pain is inescapable in this life. With psoriasis, painand itching are inescapable. I, like you, have spent many sleepless nights very aware of this fact. While we may not be able to control our physical discomfort, I think we are very capable of influencing the degree of mental anguish we allow to go on uncontrolled. Consider the following scenario: a pain flares up in my knee. Pain is (of course) not ideal and brings me some degree of suffering. Now observe the following tirade of thoughts and emotions:
“Oh my god, is that arthritis?! Anxiety. I have a friend whose arthritis started this way, I bet it is. Despair. What if I lose my job? What if I don’t qualify for disability? Sadness. What if I get another bad flare of psoriasis? Oh god, I don’t think I could go through that again.Depressing memories start to surface.”
So here’s the thing... the initial pain in my knee was uncomfortable, but witness all of the negative emotions and thoughts I just piled on top! In 60 seconds flat I’ve managed to stress about the past, present AND future. A knot of dread has formed in my stomach. And you know what? Worrying hasn’t fixed my knee... it still hurts. What a sorry state. This is what I mean by doubling the suffering.
How to double down
You’ve likely heard it before but do take to heart that worrying doesn’t change the future. I may still get arthritis, I may still lose my job, but those things will happen whether or not I worry about them. And so, it really is no exaggeration to say that releasing negative thoughts/emotions can help alleviate our suffering right now, in a substantial way. But how do we “change our minds”? I have two suggestions:
- Establish a meditation practice that helps you develop better attention/awareness
- Practice self-compassion
Developing better attention and awareness
For the first, many meditation practices will help you develop your powers of concentration, to the point that thoughts and emotions can come and go without you getting caught up in them. Repeatedly bringing attention back to your meditation object also trains your brain to stop wandering away so much, and it can help you have an “aha” moment before your inner critic really ramps up. Meditation and self-reflection also offer a way to address deep-seated beliefs and fears that drive negative thought patterns.
For the second, replace some of that negativity by practicing self-compassion. There are lots of ways to do this. I love metta (loving-kindness) meditation, but listing things we’re grateful for or practicing loving self-talk are great too. Be kind to yourself. Hold those negative thoughts/emotions with love and care. A therapist once told me to talk to myself like I would a child. The next time you catch yourself caught up in a self-hate whirlwind, try “oh man, you’re really having a tough time. It’s okay, we’ll get through this. Let’s take a moment to re-group. Can we take a step back and send some love?”
Both these tools have helped me be more accepting and more present. Of course, acceptance doesn’t mean “giving up,” it simply seeks to find equanimity and peace within our current circumstances.
Hoping you find your peace today (if even for a moment) :)
Where on your body does psoriasis bother you the most?