The idea that mindfulness can reduce pain and suffering seems too good to be true. A bit of meditation, some relaxation exercises and the pain is gone! Poof!
Well, not quite. The truth is a little bit more complex than that, but no less transformative. With mindfulness based pain approaches we learn to change the way the body and the mind responds to pain so that we reduce our suffering. We gradually unlearn the habits that keep us locked in the pain cycle and learn new habits that bring peace, acceptance and joy. For some people the actual pain itself will be reduced and for others, they will learn how to lead happier and more contented lives alongside their pain. But how does this actually work? That’s definitely the work of a book and not a blog post, but I will summarise 3 of the key mechanisms below.
We stop resisting the pain both mentally and physically
Human evolution has wired our brains to avoid pain. It’s a good survival strategy so we don’t go wandering through boiling hot springs or wrestling with toothy animals for fun. It also means however that we will instinctively resist pain without even being aware of doing so.
Firstly we resist physically. If you can remember an occasion when you’ve cut your finger, you’ll probably remember that your torso, arms, shoulders, hands and fingers tense up just afterwards. You’ll probably have drawn your hand towards yourself, perhaps made a sound and instinctively cradled the wounded digit.
Long term pain and illness works in the same way. As we resist the pain, the body tenses around it and moves more carefully to try to protect it. All this tension and reduced movement introduces more pain and discomfort to the area however as the tensing becomes knots and strains in the muscles. The reduced movement starts to create further immobility. Over time, the pain becomes worse and the symptoms worsen.
With mindfulness we work with melting away this resistance so the additional physical pain and tension can be alleviated.
The other way in which we resist is mentally. We don’t want the pain to be there and so we try all kinds of strategies. Relentless searching for cures and relief which creates anxiety when we can’t find a solution to the problem. Mind over matter, which often worsens pain because we stop listening to our body and create a downward spiral of symptoms. What these avoidance strategies tend to do however, is focus our mind even more intently on the pain and create mental suffering alongside the physical suffering which means we can’t enjoy our daily lives.
Again with mindfulness we practice moving gently towards our pain and letting go of ruminative thinking, so we can let go of all the unnecessary mental anguish.
We build a bigger container for the pain
Often when we live with pain, it can become the dominant force in our field of awareness. With mindfulness, we allow the pain to be present whilst widening our awareness to include many more things in the present moment.
Rather than “I feel pain and I don’t like it”
It’s more “I feel pain. I smell freshly baked bread and that is nice. I see the wind blowing the leaves. I feel my feet upon the floor.”
We realise that we are more than just the pain. We are a myriad of sensations and experiences of which pain is just one. The pain does not fill our small container. It is just one item in our large container. As Jon Kabat-Zinn said “while you are still breathing, there is more right with you than there is wrong with you”.
We reduce the brain’s sensitivity to pain
The more that we experience pain, the more the brain strengthens neural pathways for feeling pain. As Donald Hebb said “neurons that fire together, wire together”. In fact, research has shown that people who suffer from chronic pain have more brain tissue devoted to feeling the sensation of pain than those who don’t. What this means is that these strengthened neural pathways will allow us to experience pain more quickly and more intensely. The pain is very real (it’s not all ‘in your mind’) but the volume is turned up to maximum.
With mindfulness we use neuroplasticity to strengthen new neural pathways, which means that other neural pathways are weakened. Burch and Penman describe eloquently how ‘mindfulness hands you back the volume control for your pain”. We retrain the brain to become less sensitive to pain and to process the sensation differently.
So those are the 3 main mechanisms for reducing pain through mindfulness but it isn’t as simple as being aware of them. We use meditation and practical exercises to change all these habits and instinctual responses and it takes time for change to be felt. Typically an 8 week course is used to teach students how to use these mindful techniques for pain effectively.
You can join me for an 8 week course “Mindfulness for Pain and Illness” starting on 19th June at The Stables in Adel (Leeds) which will allow you to learn the skills and techniques to be free from unnecessary pain. The course costs £35 and includes workbooks, book and CD of meditations. If you’d like to find out more or book, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.