Chronic pain is defined as any pain that is persistent and lasts for twelve weeks or more in spite of treatment or medication. Sometimes chronic pain is due to an injury but it can also occur without any identifiable cause. Managing chronic pain can be difficult. Treatment options can include physical therapy, medication, surgery, acupuncture, electrical stimulation, and—lately becoming more popular—cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness practices are a way of focusing awareness on sensations and feelings without judgment or interpretation. They involve meditation, breathing methods, and guided imagery. The goal of mindfulness when it comes to pain management techniques is not necessarily to eliminate the pain, but to change your relationship with it—to help you deal with the pain you are feeling.
In addition to helping with pain, clinical trials have shown the benefits of mindfulness and meditation to include reductions of stress and anxiety, depression, insomnia, and high blood pressure. Regular mindfulness practices have also been shown to improve sleep and attention, help control diabetes, and decrease job burnout.
How Does Mindfulness Work?
At its simplest, mindfulness is just a short pause inserted into daily life. Mindfulness exercises can be performed seated, standing, or lying down, or even while walking or performing other movements. Mindfulness is also integral to practices such as yoga, and can be combined with other sports as well.
Mindfulness is a simple matter of being fully present and aware of our bodies, focusing on the moment without being overwhelmed or overly reactive to outside stimulus or thoughts and fears. It’s something that can come naturally with a bit of conscious practice. Core concepts include focusing on breathing, paying attention, living in the moment, and accepting yourself.
Mindfulness exercises with more structure include body scan meditation, seated meditation, and walking meditation.
How Effective is Mindfulness as a Pain Management Tool?
Pain is a complicated experience with several components. First, and most obviously, are the physical sensations. But just as important is our emotional response to the physical sensation of pain, along with the social effect of what we are experiencing.
Mindfulness is a tool intended to help us segment our pain into these three components—the physical, emotional, and social—in order to relieve suffering even if we don’t necessarily reduce the severity of the physical pain.
One of the more widely known and highly regarded mindfulness practices for addressing pain is called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). It is specifically not about reducing pain, but about responding to pain in a healthier way. It is about reducing psychological distress arising from pain, rather than eliminating the pain itself.
And it seems to work: MBSR has been shown to reduce depression and anxiety in chronic pain patients; reduce the unpleasantness associated with pain; and improve pain acceptance.
How Mindfulness Improves the Psychological Experience of Pain
When your focus is entirely on the moment in which you are living, being mindful of your body and the sensations you are feeling, then you naturally cut down on reactivity and repetitive thinking. Your emotional flexibility improves and you more easily tolerate unpleasant sensations. Acceptance of the moment increases as you put aside overthinking and begin to relax.
Mindfulness allows you to step away from the hypervigilance and fear avoidance too often associated with chronic pain.
How to Incorporate Mindfulness Into Your Day
A simple seated or lying meditation is the easiest way to get the hang of mindfulness. You only need a few minutes at a time. Eventually, as you gain experience, the techniques will come naturally and you’ll be able to incorporate mindfulness into many other parts of your day:
- Find a comfortable position, whether sitting or lying down.
- Soften your gaze or close your eyes.
- Breathe. Breathe deeply, hold for a pause, and release.
- Focus on the sensations in your body, perhaps beginning with a specific spot and then moving systematically through other areas, focusing and then releasing.
- If your mind starts to wander, center yourself again on your breathing and the sensations in your body.