When we’re in pain, we want it to go away immediately. Chronic pain is frustrating and debilitating. Living with continuing pain can radically affect a person’s quality of life. The last thing we want to do is pay more attention to our pain. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is paying attention to something on purpose and with fresh eyes.
Mindfulness and Chronic Pain
Mindfulness exercises help people concentrate on the present without judging their actions. In times of chronic pain, people may have negative or worrisome thoughts about their condition, due to the fact that they may not have the ability to practice mindfulness every day. In addition to affecting mood and increasing pain, these thoughts are normal
It may seem antithetical but there’s growing research that lends credence to mindfulness as an approach to grapple with chronic pain. Research suggests that mindfulness interventions lessen pain symptomology in pain-related disorders like migraine and fibromyalgia amongst others. In a 2015 study, it was found that daily mindfulness practice was associated with the elimination of pain medication in some patients. Brain representations of the participants of the study receiving these interventions revealed reduced activity in the parts of the brain controlling pain signal transmission.
As a part of this practice, instead of focusing on how badly we want the pain to stop, we pay attention to our pain with curiosity and without judgment. This approach is very different from what we naturally do when we experience the physiological sensation of pain. We typically launch into a litany of judgments and negative thoughts. We start ruminating on how much we hate the pain and we wish it away. We judge the pain, and that only makes it worse. In fact, our negative thoughts and judgements not only exacerbate the pain but also fuel anxiety and depression.
What also makes matters worse is that our minds start brainstorming ways to soothe the pain. I compare this to the Roomba, a robot vacuum. If you trap the Roomba, it just keeps bouncing off the edges. Our brains do the same when they scour for solutions. This creates a lot of frustration, stress and a feeling of entrapment.
Mindfulness teaches people with chronic pain to be inquisitive about the intensity of their pain instead of letting their minds jump to thoughts like “This is awful.”
What we want to do as best as we can is to engage with the pain just as it is. It’s not about achieving a certain goal – like minimising pain – but learning to relate to the pain differently. It alludes to a learning mindset, as opposed to an achievement-oriented mindset. In other words, as you’re applying mindfulness to your pain, you might consider your experience, and ask yourself: “What can I learn about this pain? What do I notice?”
As Jon Kabat-Zinn (scientist, writer, and meditation expert), PhD, writes in the introduction of The Mindfulness Solution to Pain, “From the perspective of mindfulness, nothing needs fixing. Nothing needs to be forced to stop, or change, or go away.”
Kabat-Zinn founded a program called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) in 1979. While today it helps individuals with all sorts of concerns, such as stress, lack of sleep, anxiety and high blood pressure, it was originally created to help chronic pain patients.
“In MBSR, we emphasize that awareness and thinking are very different capacities. Both, of course, are extremely potent and valuable, but from the perspective of mindfulness, it is the awareness that is healing, rather than merely thinking. Also, it is only awareness itself that can balance out all of our various inflammations of thought and the emotional agitations and distortions that accompany the frequent storms that blow through the mind, especially in the face of a chronic pain condition,” Kabat-Zinn writes in the book.
Mindfulness strategies to deal with chronic pain
Mindfulness provides a transformed, more accurate perception of pain. For instance, you might think that you’re in pain all day. But bringing awareness to your pain might reveal that it actually peaks, valleys and completely subsides. One of my clients believed that his pain was constant throughout the day. But when he examined his pain, he realised that it hits him about six times a day. This helped to lift his frustration and anxiety.
If you’re struggling with chronic pain, I suggest these mindfulness-based strategies.
1. Body Scan
A body scan, which also is included in MBSR, involves bringing awareness to each body part. The idea is to tune into your body and get in touch with the physical sensations tethered to emotional states – tightness in the chest, heartburn, tickles, aches, tingling, warmth and more. You’re bringing attention to what the brain wants to move away from. However, instead of immediately reacting to your pain, the body scan teaches your brain to be present to what you find even if it is unpleasant. Research suggests that ‘elevated internal somatic sensations” (or interoceptive attention) can help lessen the misinterpretation of physical symptoms. It’s about noticing pain and breathing through it without expecting it to subside. In simple terms, body scan meditation may not end the pain but it can lead to the observation of the discomfort and acceptance of pain.
2. Healthy Distractions
A distraction can be a helpful tool when your pain is high (such as anything above an 8 on a 10-point scale). The key is to pick a healthy distraction. The purposeful employment of healthy distraction can equip people with coping skills. The leading psychology journal, Psychology Today defines healthy distraction as the one that permits you to direct your attention to some other activity, ‘favourably one that requires your complete attention (and that isn’t damaging or compulsive).’ For instance, it could be anything from playing a game on your iPad to focusing on a conversation with a friend or getting lost in a book. Research shows that distractions suppress the reaction to approaching pain signals from the spinal cord to the relevant brain regions at the primary level of central pain processing, thanks to the endogenous opioids secreted by the brain.
3. Conscious Breathing
When pain arises, the brain reacts automatically with thoughts, such as “I hate this, what am I going to do?” Though you can’t stop these first few negative thoughts, you can calm your mind and ground your breath. The breath can serve as an anchor for the mind when it wanders and returns.
Simply breathe in slowly and say to yourself “In.” Then, breathe out slowly and say “Out.” You also might ask yourself, “What’s most important for me to pay attention to now?” Studies have shown that conscious and slow breathing can alter autonomic activity, pain perception and mood processing. Research suggests that it can serve as an adjunct in addressing chronic pain syndromes.
Research suggests that consciously altering the way you breathe transmits a signal to the brain to invoke the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system (responsible for the rest and digest mode), which can decelerate the heart rate and digestion and induce feelings of calm. It can also regulate the sympathetic system, which controls the release of stress hormones like cortisol. Breathing exercises can help regulate cortisol, by extension reducing stress, and glucose volatility, and can also minimize other ancillary effects.
Pain triggers the stress response in the body, activating the sympathetic nervous system. It causes individuals to hold their breath as the pressure on their nerves cranks up. Deep breathing leads to the secretion of hormones like nitrous oxide in the blood, lessening the strain in the body’s muscles and connective tissues. Learn how deep breathing connects with Blood glucose.
A growing body of research suggests that mindfulness practices can be effective in managing chronic pain. Mindfulness teaches people to be curious about their pain and offers a more factual perception of their pain. Body scan meditation and conscious breathing can be effective ways to deal with chronic pain. Research shows that slow breathing can serve as an adjunct in addressing chronic pain syndromes. A body scan, which also is included in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s (scientist, writer, and meditation expert) program called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), involves bringing awareness to each body part. Distraction is effective when the pain is intense and it rates at 8 on a 10 point scale. While it sounds counterintuitive, the very act of paying attention can help you ease your pain by changing your outlook towards it.
Disclaimer: The contents of this article are for general information and educational purposes only. It neither provides any medical advice nor intends to substitute professional medical opinion on the treatment, diagnosis, prevention or alleviation of any disease, disorder or disability. Always consult with your doctor or qualified healthcare professional about your health condition and/or concerns and before undertaking a new healthcare regimen including making any dietary or lifestyle changes.