This year has been so full of stress and anxiety for just about all of us. Concerns about our health, uncertainty about the future, and the feeling of isolation have made so many of us worse for the wear. It should come as no surprise that chronic pain, which is greatly affected by mental state, may also be reaching an all-time high for many. Physical manifestations of stress and anxiety can be managed. The good news is you may not need to rely entirely on a doctor or stay on pain medication.
That is not to say that it isn’t important to see your doctor and to work with him on a pain management plan; but the difference between acute illness and chronic illness is that with acute illness and pain, you go to your doctor get a prescription and hopefully following his instructions get well. As someone with a chronic illness, I understand that it is important to work with your doctor to get the best possible care and also seeing what you can do to help yourself.
In recent years, researchers, scientists, and theorists have been conducting clinical research on the effects of mindfulness and meditation practices and their findings are confirming the long-term benefits of regular mediation and mindfulness practice. These benefits include, but are not limited to stress reduction, minimizing chronic pain, reducing anxiety, lowering the probability of symptoms of depression, enhancing brain performance, improving sleep, reducing the risk of heart attack and stroke, and improving overall well-being.
According to Sylvia Boorstein, (2012) “Mindfulness is the aware, balanced acceptance of the present experience. It is not more complicated than that. It is opening to or receiving the present moment, pleasant or unpleasant, just as it is, without either clinging to it or rejecting it”.
Kabat-Zinn has defined mindfulness meditation as “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally. By focusing on the breath, the idea is to cultivate attention on the body and mind as it is a moment to moment, and so help with pain, both physical and emotional’.
When we examine the definitions of mindful meditation, we can see that it is the opposite of fighting, clinging, or avoiding the thoughts, feelings, and sensations present in the moment. Many of us, especially those struggling with chronic pain, spend large portions of our time consumed with either fighting, clinging, or avoiding our experiences in the present moment and end up missing out on life.
Typically, we are not even aware we are doing this. As Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., 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 an effective program called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) in 1979. While today it helps individuals with all sorts of concerns, such as stress, anxiety sleep problems and high blood pressure, it was originally created to help chronic pain patients.
Mindfulness is the opposite of mindlessness. How many of us are guilty of going through our days like a robot? Waking, taking medication, showering, etc, without even thinking. Sometimes we are so mindless that we must honestly think to recall why we walked into a room or what we did the previous day.
Mindfulness is living each day with purpose and intent and the practice of mindfulness would have us engage and be present in every moment of our day…and adapt adjust as each moment changes. Furthermore, mindfulness would have us accept what is…what is present, pleasant, or unpleasant, good, or bad, and let it be. “Mindfulness is not just paying attention to the positive experiences, but also the neutral and negative ones” – Dr. Jackie Gardner-Nix.
Chronic pain can trigger changes in brain structure, such as changes to the limbic system that controls our emotions and the pre-frontal cortex that is the thinking, decision-making, and problem-solving area of our brain. Chronic pain changes the communication between these two areas of the brain, reducing the effectiveness of our pre-frontal cortex and increasing activity in parts of our limbic system. When these changes occur, individuals tend to struggle with concentration, decision-making, and problem-solving, along with being more susceptible to emotional reactivity related to heightened stress Penman, D.
Forming new memories can also be a struggle for people with chronic pain. Consequently, the changes in brain structure produce changes in brain functioning that are linked to depression, anxiety, and impaired cognitive functioning. The good news is that research shows these changes can be reversed when patients are treated for painful conditions. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, mindful meditation is a way to retrain your brain.
With advances in brain imaging technology, we can see how regular weekly practice of meditation can profoundly change the way different regions of the brain communicate with each other and therefore how we think Ireland, T., Scientific American. With regular mindfulness practice, the emotional response system of the brain the limbic system, specifically the amygdala, which is directly impacted by stress shrinks, while the rational, decision-making part of our brain, which is in control of concentration and awareness, grows Ireland, T., Further, the connections between these two areas of the brain also change. Thus mindful meditation practices seem to reverse the effects chronic pain has on the brain. Mindfulness meditation has been shown in clinical trials to reduce chronic pain by 57%, and some experienced meditators can reduce it by over 90%.
There are many ways to practice mindfulness, but the goal of any mindfulness technique is to achieve a state of alert, focused relaxation by deliberately paying attention to thoughts and sensations without judgment. This allows the mind to refocus on the present moment. All mindfulness techniques are a form of meditation.
- Basic Mindfulness Meditation: Sit quietly and focus on your natural breathing or a word or “mantra” i.e. “quiet,” “relax” that you repeat silently. Allow thoughts to come and go without judgment and return to your focus on breath or mantra.
- Body Sensations: Notice subtle body sensations such as an itch or tingling without judgment and let them pass. Notice each part of your body in succession from head to toe.
- Sensory: Notice sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches. Name them “sight,” “sound,” “smell,” “taste,” or “touch” without judgment and let them go.
- Emotions: Allow emotions to be present without judgment. Practice a steady and relaxed naming of emotions: “joy,” “anger,” “frustration.” Accept the presence of the emotions without judgment and let them go.
You can always access several guided meditations on the internet; simply by searching for meditation for pain and sleep, or meditation for pain and stress. “Guided Meditation for Pain”, videos are especially helpful resources. There are also apps available on smartphones that allow access to meditation anywhere.
There is no right or wrong way to meditate. You can start with – minutes a day and then integrate another — minute practice throughout your day. The key is to start right away and not put it off. Like all healthy lifestyle practices, regular and consistent mindfulness meditation practice is crucial to reap the associated benefits.
- Jackie Gardner-Nix, Ph.D. The Mindfulness Solution to Pain: Step-by-step Techniques for Chronic Pain Management: Step-by-Step Techniques for Chronic Pain.
- Danny Penman and Vidyamala Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Relieving Pain, Reducing Stress, Platkus.
- Ted Talk: How Mindfulness Meditation Redefines Pain, Happiness, and Satisfaction by Dr. Kasim Al-Mashat.
- Sylvia Boorstein (2012) Wheel: A Recovery from Chronic Pain and Discovery of New Energy Balboa Press.