“I think I have a meditation disability” Donna Jackson Nakazawa

Donna’s going to start her year of using mind/body techniques and acupuncture to return joy to her life (and hopefully improve her health) with an 8-week mindfulness-based-stress-reduction (MBSR) course.

First, though, she’s going to have a private meeting with a meditation instructor. It’s a good idea. She’s a bit of a mess, actually. Her mind is racing, she’s beating herself up constantly, she can’t calm down; in short, she thinks she’s probably about the last person that would benefit from this approach. She could use a little extra help.


Meditation and mindfulness techniques helped Trish Magyari dig her way out of ME/CFS/FM 20 years ago

Her meditation instructor turns out to have an interesting past.  Twenty years earlier Trish Magyari turned to mind/body practices after being struck by chronic fatigue syndrome/fibromyalgia.  A young, single mother working ‘impossible hours, her health bit by bit began to fall apart.  First, she stopped working full-time and then part-time and then working altogether.

Overwhelmed by pain, she turned to mind/body practices. As they helped her to ‘occupy a less reactive mental space’ she slowly began to dig her way out.  By 1999 she was working full time again. She still has problems with fatigue, but they’re on a different level than before.

Since then, she’s become a senior Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) instructor, a clinical counselor is on the Johns Hopkins faculty, and has worked with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and rheumatoid arthritis patients to lower their stress and anxiety levels and sometimes pain as well.

She’s seen MBSR bring some people physical breakthroughs while others are happy to get the emotional relief and improved quality of life they bring. Maygari noted that once people are able to build a different relationship with their pain and disabilities they’re often empowered to move on and take up challenges they’d put off.

idiot button

Donna’s been hitting the idiot button a lot lately

Donna’s not so sure about herself.  Her lab tests and diagnoses aren’t the only ‘alp’ she has to climb. With her mind churning out negative and worried thoughts at about 150 miles an hour, she’s concerned that she may have a ‘meditation disability’.

Retraining her brain with its miles of faulty wiring is probably a mountain too high to climb, she thinks. Neuroplasticity is one thing, but we’re talking about major, major rewiring here.  This may be impossible, she informs Trish.

This is the Donna who, after finding that the door lock on her car didn’t work that morning, spilled her water all over herself.  Then she was late to the appointment. Then her daughter called in the middle of her appointment. All the while the term “what an idiot” rang in her head again and again.

tingsha bells

Naming her judgmental mind while listening to the tingsha bells returns Donna to calmness

To which Trish, with a smile, replied that maybe working on being more friendly to yourself would be a good first step. Trish suggested she meet that judgment by naming it and, as Donna takes a deep breath, listens to the tingsha meditation bell, and names her ‘self-judging’ mind when it arises, she finds that it quiets down and she feels a calmness she hasn’t felt in a while. By the end of the meditation she’s smiling.

A Meditation Disability?

This is all interesting to me because I think I may have a ‘meditation disability’ as well.  Before getting chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), and before I knew anything about meditation, I regularly engaged in meditation-like practices, but those mostly went out the window post-ME/CFS.  The rewards just weren’t there anymore.


Donna’s mind – rushing at what feels like 150 miles an hour- suggests to her she may have a ‘ meditation disability’

I’m not alone. Toni Bernhard engaged in extensive meditation practices pre-ME/CFS but found them much more difficult post-ME/CFS.  If I’m reading her right, she now uses more mindfulness exercises than meditation exercises.

Some research backs this up. The mental fatigue in ME/CFS makes it more difficult for them to engage in tasks requiring ‘sustained attention’.  They have reduced attentional capacity and have to exert more energy and use more sections of their brains to process outside stimuli. Their brains also have trouble shutting off attention to innocuous outside stimuli – a key feature of meditation.

These problems appear to be physiologically based. A recent study suggesting that ME/CFS patients with worsened muscle recovery times have worse cognitive functioning, and tied muscle functioning to cognition. Another study indicating that cognitive defects are associated with enhanced sympathetic nervous system functioning (low heart rate variability) linked them with problems with autonomic nervous system functioning. A fibromyalgia study suggesting problems with blood pressure regulation may be associated with poor cognition did the same.

Meditative practices probably are more difficult in ME/CFS and Fibromyalgia than in healthy people, but that doesn’t mean they may not be helpful. Numerous studies have shown these practices tend to push the body in the direction toward reduced sympathetic nervous system functioning and enhanced parasympathetic nervous system functioning that could be helpful.

Donna’s not optimistic regarding her ability to use meditation or mindfulness exercises to tame her ‘reactive mind’, but here she is.


Donna’s homework is to read

(a) Read a book called “Radical Acceptance” by psychologist and meditation expert Tara Brach.

(b) Work on being more friendly to herself.

(c) Think back on how she coped with the big stressors in her childhood and how she learned to relate to herself in the face of them.

  • Check out more “Last Best Cure” blogs as we chart Donna Jackson Nakazawa’s efforts to return to joy and improve her health in the midst having an autoimmune disorder and other afflictions.


Donna Jackson Nakazawa is a science journalist, author, and public speaker.  She tweets often about breaking medical news. Follow her tweets and check out her Facebook site and website and blog. 

She is the author of the The Last Best  Cure, The Autoimmune Epidemic, and Does Anybody Else Look Like Me? A Parent’s Guide to Raising Multiracial Children as well as a contributor to the Andrew Weil Integrative Medicine Library book, Integrative Gastroenterology, (Oxford University Press, April 2010).

Among others she is the recipient of the 2010 National Health Information Award, the 2012 international AESKU Award from the International Congress on Autoimmunity for her lifetime contribution to autoimmune disease research with the book The Autoimmune Epidemic.

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