You can control pain through the process of mind-body intervention that utilizes mindfulness meditation. Here we will show you how to use meditation to manage your chronic pain and live a happier and healthier life.
Acute Pain vs. Chronic Pain
Pain is a general term that is used to describe something that sore or hurts. This is caused by an event that is physical, psychological or emotional that makes a person feel uncomfortable. Each person interprets pain differently, but physical pain can be grouped into two basic categories of acute and chronic. So, what are the differences between acute and chronic pain?
This type of pain typically begins suddenly and can be associated with a specific action or event that causes the pain. Acute pain is limited to a shorter period of time and usually resolves within six months of its onset. Examples of acute pain include:
- Cuts, scrapes, bruises and minor burns
- Fractures, sprains, and strains
- Dental procedures
- Labor and delivery/childbirth
- Bee stings or insect bites
- Surgery (without complications)
- Non-migraine headaches
In contrast to acute pain, pain that is ongoing and lasts for more than six months is categorized as chronic pain. This continuous pain can be the result of an injury or illness, in which the pain continues beyond the expected healing process. For others, there may not be a specific event that the pain can be tied explicitly to. With either of these cases, pain signals can continue for months and years with no known cause. Some of the more common causes of chronic pain include:
- Back or joint injuries
- Nerve-related conditions
It is important to note that the effects of chronic pain can extend beyond physical symptoms because of the stress that the body endures with continuous pain signals transmitted to the brain and the body’s response (Vlaeyen, Morley & Crombez, 2016).
Mindfulness and Chronic Pain Management
Many people live with chronic pain day after day with little to no relief. However, when this pain goes beyond the physical aspects, it can interfere with sleeping, eating, mood, personal relationships and professional abilities to name just a few. These effects can leave you looking for alternatives to narcotic pain medications. If this is you, then mindful meditation might be a viable option for managing your chronic pain.
Meditation can be used alone or with other practices that use meditation and movement to achieve stress and pain reduction. Some of these include yoga and tai chi. However, much of the literature related to meditation in the past decade has focused on mindfulness meditation. This technique has been shown to have effects on the process of enhanced self-regulation, that includes self-awareness, emotional regulation and attention control (Tang, Holzel & Posner, 2015).
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is described as a way of non-judgmentally directing attention. This technique has been used in Eastern cultures for centuries but just has been adopted in the West. The goal of this technique is to fully focus attention on what you are currently experiencing.
This is done by accepting and being nonjudgmental of one’s self as we work to eliminate the external forces that we as humans typically focus on like rehashing the past, reliving memories or rehearsing the future and making plans. Many people focus on these things over again and again without paying attention to the now. This is where mindfulness can help. (Baer & Krietemeyer, 2006) (Davis, Zautra, Wolf, Tennen & Yeung, 2015).
Mindfulness and the Brain
The practice of mindfulness is very different from what our brains naturally do when we experience the physiological sensation of pain. Our minds typically jump into a repetition of judgments and negative thoughts. We begin to focus on how much we dislike the pain we are experiencing and the yearning to wish it away. This often results in suffering from anticipatory pain. A great deal of suffering often lies in the meanings we attach to pain. We judge ourselves and the pain that we feel, only making things worse. These negative thoughts not only intensify the pain, but they can also increase anxiety and depression.
Mindfulness meditation can be used as a tool to create more awareness of the sensation of pain itself. The idea of being mindful about pain for most people seems counter-intuitive. Most people want to forget about their pain or get rid of it somehow. However, this form of meditation (with a little practice) can help you achieve a relatively calm and content emotional state, thereby reducting suffering, even when you are in physical pain.
How We Perceive Pain
The human mind does not only feel pain; it processes all of the different sensations to determine the underlying causes so that in the future you can avoid pain or damage to the body. As your mind analyses the pain, it also sifts through memories for occasions when you have had similar experiences. It searches for patterns or clues, that might lead to a solution. The problem is, that if you have endured chronic pain for months or years, the mind will have an abundant supply of painful memories to draw upon but very few solutions (Sousa, 2016).
Before you realize it, your mind can become flooded with thoughts about your pain in which you feel that you have always been in pain and may never find a solution. These thoughts can result in a vicious cycle that ends up further amplifying your pain. The stress of this can trigger feedback systems in the body causing harm to the immune system and hampering the healing process. Over time, your brain becomes better at sensing pain and reacts faster and with greater magnitude (Cummins, 2019).
Practicing Mindfulness Meditation
The mindfulness method that we will focus on here is body scan meditation. This is one of the most effective mindfulness practices concerning pain reduction and is being incorporated into many inpatient pain management programs (Mayo Clinic, 2019) (Sloan Kettering, 2019).
Body scan meditation focuses your attention on the physical sensations in the entire body, by “scanning” one’s awareness on a micro level. With this technique, attention is given to every inch of your body and is used to cultivate your ability to notice what is being experienced. Interestingly, when practiced regularly, some individuals that believe that they are in continuous pain, find that they may have peaks and valleys in their pain level. That is, they may experience times of greater and lesser degrees of pain sensations and learn how to focus on those areas of the body to effectively decrease pain (Hardison & Roll, 2016)
This technique has five basic steps and can take less than 30 minutes to complete. The steps are as follows:
Step 1: Preparation
This is the time in which you prepare yourself to start this exercise. You will need to find a quiet and comfortable place where you can lie down and not be disturbed for the duration of this session. Be sure to turn off your phone and let others know that you are not to be disturbed.
Step 2: Relaxation
After you have a comfortable position (on your back), it is time to focus on relaxing areas of your body that feel tense and to observe your body position. You can mentally examine the different areas of your body that you frequently experience muscle stiffness or tension, like the neck and shoulders, the abdomen or the jaw. The goal is to try to consciously release any tension that you might feel in these areas.
Step 3: Focus on Breathing
Start this step by bringing your awareness now to your breathing. Focus your awareness only on your body as you breathe in and out. Let go of the past and future and fully engage in the present as it is. Whatever comes into your thoughts at this time should be acknowledged and then let it go and come back to the awareness of your breathing. As you breathe in, feel it reach into all areas of your body, then exhale and let any negative thoughts and tension.
Step 4: Body Scan
You can choose to start your scan at the top of your head and move down or at the tip of your toes and move up. As you focus on that body part, be aware of what you feel in that specific spot. Be mindful of the temperature, any pain, tenderness, tingling, itching, heaviness or lightness, or possibly even none of these. Remember, this is not a time to think about why the pain is there or how to control it, just to be aware of the sensation(s). Now, bring your awareness back to your breathing and move up or down to the next body part. Repeat steps 3 and 4 as you move to each part of your body.
Step 5: Full Body Awareness
The final step is to be aware of your body as a whole. Take a few minutes to be aware of the present and feel your body as a whole while you are relaxed and calm. Even if you are still feeling some discomfort, simply feel it and do not think about it. Slowly return to an upright and seat position before standing.
Using Mindfulness Throughout Life
As you spend time practicing mindfulness; you will likely feel less pain and stress, you may be calmer, and more patient with other people and different events. This practice can modify the way you experience things and will probably generate changes in other parts of your life as well.
When you practice mindfulness meditation, you have the ability to recognize and decrease pain. In effect, mindfulness teaches you how to turn down the volume control on your pain by training your brain to react differently to pain responses. By doing so, your body can then relax and begin to heal.
In addition to these benefits, numerous scientific trials have shown that mindfulness meditation is an extremely useful tool for relieving anxiety, stress, depression, exhaustion, and irritability. Other studies have found that this form of meditation can help improve memory and clarity, improve reaction times, and increase mental and physical stamina. In short, individuals that meditate regularly tend to be happier and more content than average, while being far less likely to suffer from psychological distress (Durkin, 2017).
Michael Sinel, M.D.
Dr. Sinel is an expert in spinal disorders, stress-related back pain, and mind/body medicine. He also has obtained certifications as a yoga therapist and mindfulness-based stress reduction instructor. Dr. Sinel is a proponent of using alternative methods to help patients overcome the pain and loss of mobility from spinal disorders and chronic pain syndromes.
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