Pain (especially chronic pain) really has a way of making us crazy. Not only does it affect us physically, but also mentally.
When we are in pain, our minds automatically go into panic mode like, “OMG I need this pain to go away NOW, what do I do?!”
This leads to negative thoughts, frustration, and despair. You might find yourself thinking “what if I never recover from this?” or “nothing ever works, so what’s the point?”
This vicious cycle of pain, stress, and anxiety only worsens suffering from chronic pain.
You might think that your only option for chronic pain relief is painkiller drugs. While these medications can take away some of the physical discomforts, they also tend to disturb our mental balance. They also come with their own unique physical side effects. Before you know it, you’re taking more medications just to treat the side effects. Sounds like a recipe for disaster.
What if we could train our minds to cope with chronic pain and maybe even get rid of it? Sound too good to be true?
This is a very attainable reality that can be achieved through mindfulness. Mindfulness is a form of meditation (more below on definitions) that helps change the way the mind perceives pain. Favorably, it is natural and effective.
What exactly is mindfulness?
The UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center defines mindfulness as “moment-by-moment process of actively and openly observing one's physical, mental and emotional experiences.”
The practice of mindfulness has actually been around for thousands of years with its lineage originating in early Eastern religions. Check out more about its history and its recent rise to fame in Western cultures here.
Mindfulness has been gaining popularity in recent years as a method of treatment for a variety of conditions. It has been shown to be effective for chronic pain conditions (such as cancer, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, among others) as well as mental health conditions such as depression, substance use disorder, anxiety, and ADHD. Mindfulness is also helpful for stress relief and achieving better sleep.
Using mindfulness for chronic pain means we are paying attention to our pain on purpose with fresh eyes and without judgment. We become curious about the intensity of the pain instead of immediately jumping to negative thoughts.
Mindfulness also teaches us to let go of goals and expectations and relate to pain as it is. Think of it as ‘learning mode’ instead of our usual achievement-oriented mindset. This will prevent our minds from automatically going into alarm mode and scouring for solutions.
In the end, our minds gain a more accurate perception and better relation to pain.
You might be thinking, “paying more attention to my pain sounds counterintuitive.” Sure, mindfulness might sound a little crazy. But the science behind it is very encouraging.
One year-long study looked at a group of people with both chronic pain and psychological disorders who underwent a mindfulness-based stress reduction program. Analysis of measures at 8 weeks and 1 year showed significant improvements in mental and physical function, pain, psychological symptoms, and self-efficacy. There were also significant decreases in doctor’s visits, emergency room visits, and hospital admissions.
Another study looked at people with multiple sclerosis and found a significant positive relationship between mindfulness and pain.
These results suggest that mindfulness exercises are a great complementary therapy for chronic pain conditions.
How do I get started with mindfulness?
New to mindfulness and meditation and wondering where to start?
First, let me clear up the distinction between meditation and mindfulness as they often overlap with each other.
Meditation is an umbrella term that encompasses the practice of ultimate awareness and concentration. The goal is to acknowledge the mind and achieve inner peace. Using love, compassion, and patience might bring you into this state of mind. This can also be accomplished with the use of different subcategories of meditation such as yoga, silence, breathing, and of course, mindfulness.
As we said, the goal of mindfulness is to focus on being in the present. For example, while drinking that hot cup of tea, you will be focusing on its taste, scent, and warmth while removing intense emotions from your mind.
To get started with basic meditation, we recommend apps like Calm and Headspace to find meditation exercises to help with anxiety, sleep, stress, relationships, and personal growth. Anytime you need to find your zen, just whip out your headphones and listen to a guided lesson, music, or a sleep story.
Mastering basic meditation practices will arm you with the necessary tools to use mindfulness strategies to combat the symptoms of chronic pain.
Now that you have meditation down, here are a few mindfulness-based strategies that are helpful for chronic pain. Explore as much as you can to find out what works for you.
A “body scan” is a technique that focuses on one area of the body at a time to bring awareness to that body part.
The idea is to observe and ‘feel’ what you find so that your brain can, in a way, make peace with your pain.
Want to give it a try? Grab some headphones and find a quiet place to listen to this 15 minute guided full body scan meditation.
Simply focusing on your breathing can promote mindfulness when pain strikes.
When pain first arises, the brain automatically turns to negative thoughts. When this happens, you can calm your mind with rhythmic breaths.
Start with even breaths in and out. Saying “in” with inhaling and “out” with exhaling will help you to focus. Once your breath is grounded, figure out what is the most important thing to focus on at that moment.
Here is another useful breathing exercise that helps to calm a busy mind: Imagine an old well. You know, one of those cylindrical stone wells you might find in the middle of a peaceful, grassy field. On the well, there's a wooden bucket fixed to a rope and crank. As you breathe in, the bucket travels down the well and scoops up the water. As you exhale, the bucket ascends up and empties the water. The slower and steadier you breathe, the more water you're able to move. Repeat as necessary.
Distraction can be a very powerful tool, especially with severe pain.
Of course, you want to pick a healthy distraction such as a conversation with a close friend or maybe getting lost in a book.
Or, using your senses for distraction with imagery and sounds creates a relaxing experience.
For example, picture yourself on the beach in the warm sun, toes in the sand, listening to the waves, with a frozen drink your hand.
Get creative and imagine a scene where you use all of your senses (sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch). You will soon forget all about that pain and stress.
Lose yourself in the moment
The mind is extremely powerful and can do amazing things. We often underestimate that fact.
Mindfulness meditation is an easy, safe, and effective way to help deal with or even get rid of chronic pain.
Start practicing with a technique that works for you and you may soon find that the volume control on pain and suffering has been turned down.
Meet the Author
Shannon is a nurse practitioner with an array of clinical experience. She is particularly passionate about health promotion and disease prevention. When she's not nurse practitioner-ing or writing, she enjoys reading, cooking, and yoga. You can check out her blog at https://shannonthenp.com.