12 February 2022

To mark Fibromyalgia Awareness Day, Breathworks mindfulness teacher, Patrícia Dias, shares how mindfulness can support those managing this condition.

What is Fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia or fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS) is a long-term health condition that causes pain all over the body and seriously affects the quality of life of those who live with it. It’s about seven times more likely to affect women than men, and although it tends to manifest in people between the ages of 30 and 50, it can show up at any age, even in children and the elderly.

As well as widespread pain, people with fibromyalgia may also have:

  • increased sensitivity to pain
  • fatigue (extreme tiredness)
  • muscle stiffness
  • difficulty sleeping
  • problems with mental processes (known as "fibro-fog") – difficulties with memory and concentration
  • headaches
  • irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) – a digestive condition that causes stomach pain and bloating' (NHS Choices)

The simpler tasks of day-to-day life can become impossible, and many times family and friends may not fully understand the condition.

How is Fibromyalgia Diagnosed?

There isn’t a specific set of tests to diagnose fibromyalgia. Because there is not yet a medical explanation for the condition, it is diagnosed by ruling out other diseases, so the patient can suffer for a long time before knowing what’s going on, even with today’s advances in medicine.

Though mindfulness may not eliminate symptoms altogether, it can significantly reduce symptoms, and help people living with fibromyalgia to find more ease and joy in their life.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness has become such a mainstream word that one may not really know what we’re talking about. One of the best definitions of mindfulness remains that of Jon Kabat-Zinn:

"(Mindfulness is) awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. And then I sometimes add: in the service of self-understanding and wisdom."

What's clear from this definition is that mindfulness isn’t just meditation, which is a common misconception. Though meditation is an important aspect for developing mindfulness, it’s not the whole of it. And for people living with long-term conditions, it’s important to know that nobody is saying you should sit crossed-legged on a cushion and clear your mind of thoughts, including the ruminating ones about pain and self-criticism for not being able accomplish as much as you’d like in a day. That’s where self-understanding and wisdom come in, especially in the form of self-compassion.

Mindfulness and Fibromyalgia

Breathworks has structured an 8-week self-paced mindfulness program called Mindfulness for Health, where you build your mindfulness practice from the ground up, in a gentle, compassionate way. These courses take part in a group, meaning you have the additional benefit of being able to link up with other people living with pain and health conditions, which can help us feel less isolated.

The Mindfulness for Health course is more than just learning to meditate. It provides people with practical skills and tools to liver better, fuller lives when managing pain and illness. 

Here’s what a few people with fibromyalgia said after taking part in the Mindfulness for Health course – you may recognise some of what they have said in your own life:

"I have spent the last 20 odd years self-blaming and wondering why I keep having anxious irrational thoughts and it's been my negativity bias cranking right up! Having learnt this, I have given myself a lot more love and compassion. I really enjoyed the way the group became so friendly even with us just being on zoom. It was a lovely little community in the end."

- Female, 46
October 2020 Mindfulness for Health online course participant

"The course was full of helpful concepts and practices. I am still reflecting on its potency. The group itself was a vessel for learning and healing, and I benefited from meeting with this community of people on a regular basis. I find myself more tuned in to my body and what it needs, and crucially, more willing to act on this, taking rest and using a variety of meditations and other practical tools more regularly throughout the day than I did prior to taking the course. There has been a huge improvement in my day-to-day quality of life, and the course has enabled me to be more realistic about what might be manageable for me. In looking after myself more carefully, I also find I am more genuinely available to respond to suffering in others, which has been a source of great meaning and comfort. The course will, without any doubt, have lifelong benefits for me, and for this I thank the entire team."

- Female, 51
July 2020 Mindfulness for Health online course participant

"Having completed the course, I understand my pain so much better and the impact it has. I have learnt how to manage the varying pain by pacing myself in a planned and realistic way. This has given me the confidence to discuss my many medical conditions with a pain consultant and make plans for the future. I really enjoyed the course because I was with people who totally understood what I was experiencing. It was all so positive and supportive."

- Female, 60
August 2020 Mindfulness for Health online course participant

So now you’ve read a few of the key concepts we teach in the Mindfulness for Health course. 

Understanding your pain is crucial and you’ll learn how to distinguish between primary and secondary suffering: primary suffering is physical and in your body but secondary suffering becomes sticky from the workings of your mind.

You’ll learn how to pace too: this means taking a break before you need one and managing your day in a way that’s supportive and realistic without caving into the cycle of 'boom and bust', in which you accomplish a lot when you're feeling better (boom), until you wear yourself out, need to take a long rest (bust), and repeat. Breathworks Marketing, Communications & Research Officer, Shannon Phillips, shares here her top tips for pacing yourself to prevent burnout and flare-ups.

Other key teachings include some gentle movements to respect and honour your body, learning how to regulate your nervous system, knowing where to look for the pleasure in your days, learning self-compassion but also opening up to the world, relinquishing isolation and finding meaningful connections that might have been lost whilst living with fibromyalgia.

Mindfulness and Fibromyalgia - The Research

There has been a huge amount of evidence to support the role of mindfulness in managing fibromyalgia. Often, people with fibromyalgia demonstrate a series of maladaptive coping strategies which in turn can lead to poor mental health. Mindfulness meditation has proven to significantly improve this. For example, in a study of 91 women living with fibromyalgia, those who participated in an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program had a significant reduction in depressive symptoms compared to the control group, with these effects enduring over time after the training [1] . Another study found that after participating in mindfulness training, fibromyalgia patients demonstrated up to a 27% reduction in angry feelings, depression and anxiety [2].

Furthermore, mindfulness training has been shown to reduce physical symptoms such as fatigue and perceived pain intensity [3]. 

Being overly observant of symptoms or trying to avoid pain can actually contribute towards the development of fibromyalgia and worsen the existing symptoms [4]

A recent study in which a group of fibromyalgia patients (either attending an 8-week mindfulness program or forming a control group) took part in a computer game which measured their reaction time towards both threatening and non-threatening words. The mindfulness group showed less avoidant and hypervigilance behaviour, supporting the idea that mindfulness encourages a non-judgmental and accepting relationship with pain, rather than trying to push it away. However, the positive effects of the mindfulness training did reduce 6 months after the intervention, highlighting the fact that mindfulness is a practice which should be maintained in order to benefit fully.

You may also be interested in personal journeys with mindfulness and fibromyalgia from
Lesa Vallentine (here) and Julie Franklin (here).

Vidyamala Burch, Breathworks co-founder who has lived with pain for most of her adult life, reiterates that: "
through our Breathworks programmes, time and time again I have seen that fibromyalgia is a condition that responds well to mindfulness. Mindfulness is a 'whole life' approach where you learn how to work with your mental and emotional reactions to your pain and exhaustion; you learn how to bring mindfulness into daily life and pace your activities; you learn how to become more emotionally positive and re-claim your relationships and rediscover the joys and pleasures in your life again."

Interested in Trying Mindfulness?

The learning of mindfulness is found to be most effective over a period of eight weeks. Our Mindfulness for Health course is run in live online sessions and led by an experienced trainer. The course is suitable for both beginners, and those wishing to explore how mindfulness can be specifically tailored to those living with pain and illness.  

To find out more about the course and view our upcoming dates, click here.


[1] Sephton et al. (2007). Mindfulness meditation alleviates depressive symptoms in women with fibromyalgia: results of a randomised clinical trial. 

[2] Amutio et al. (2015). Mindfulness training for reducing anger, anxiety, and depression in fibromyalgia patients.

[3] Vago & Nakamura. (2011). Selective attentional bias towards pain-related threat in fibromyalgia: preliminary evidence for effects of mindfulness meditation training.

[4] Lauche et al. (2013). A systematic review and meta-analysis of mindfulness-based stress reduction for the fibromyalgia syndrome.