Can mindfulness change pain?
Mindfulness meditation has been shown to activate parts of the brain that reduce pain and dampen down an area of the brain that intensifies our pain experience. This effect has been seen after just four days of mindfulness meditation. It is not surprising, then, that repeated practice has been shown to cause neuroplastic (2) changes that help to break persistent pain cycles.
Although pain can be decreased through mindfulness practices, it may be more important to consider how we can shift our relationship to pain – since the pain may not go away. Rather than feeling controlled by pain, such practices may help get us back in the driver’s seat of our daily life.
How to start?
There can be advantages of reading up on the science of pain and the effects of mindfulness-based interventions – such as Mindfulness-based Stress Reductions (MBSR).
But sometimes the best place to start is just where you are.
You have a body and you have breath or you would not be reading this. These are your finest tools for accessing what your innate capacity for awareness or mindfulness.
Do you have a minute to pay attention to your breath and body?
Imagine it were the first time you had ever done the following exercise, even if you have done thousands of times before.
- Finding a comfortable position, close the eyes or gaze downwards
- Notice the contact points of your body with surface or perhaps areas of body in contact with other areas of the body
- Can you feel in some way how the whole body is breathing as you sit here? Spend a few breaths lingering with this.
- Hone your attention to notice your breath in your rib cage or abdomen, or perhaps the movement of air in and out of the nostrils.
- Is there anything interesting about your breath in this moment?
- If the mind has wandered off to a thought or feeling, which it usually will, simply notice it has happened and then guide your awareness back to the breath. Explore this for a minute or so.
- Now begin to expand the awareness to experience the whole body breathing
- Take a brief moment to reflect on how you feel now
This is just one simple exercise. But it is a way to begin training our attention in a particular way that could later help us turn towards discomfort – rather than distract from it. Recent research has shown that distraction – though maybe helpful in short-term pain- can be ineffective for persistent pain3. In fact, it can be more effective to pay attention to our sensations, as well as the emotions and thoughts associated with it. This type of attention involves being curious about the experience as it unfolds. This curiosity challenges our expectations of how the experience may turn out, seeing with fresh eyes. We may notice the pain is changing and discover new options of how to respond to it, rather than react. This awareness practice can begin to alter our pain experience and the patterns of behaviour associated with it.
At other times pain may be so overwhelming that holding it in your attention seems impossible or even forceful. Pausing, even for the briefest moment, to connect with the pain and ask ‘what is needed now’ may be a key in finding greater degrees of freedom to cope with and overcome pain.
1. Zeiden et al, (2016) Ann NY Acad Sci. 1373 (1) : 114-27
2. To be “Neuroplastic” or “neuroplasticity” may be defined as the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience or following injury.
3. Burns, J. W. (2006). The role of attentional strategies in moderating links between acute pain induction and subsequent psychological stress: evidence for symptom-specific reactivity among patients with chronic pain versus healthy non patients. Emotion, 6(2), 180.