Mindfulness meditation can reduce stress, anxiety, depression and other negative emotions. It is also becoming popular to manage pain. Mindful meditation can change the way the mind perceives pain so that it’s more bearable.
Mindfulness is the ability to remain aware of how you are feeling right now -in this moment. The goal of mindfulness is to achieve a state of alert, focused relaxation by paying attention to thoughts and feelings without judgment. By paying attention to our pain, we learn to relate to our pain differently.
An expanding body of research is showing that mindfulness meditation can be helpful for people with persistent pain. Scientists have used brain imaging to show that we process the emotional aspects of pain differently while meditating. Among fibromyalgia sufferers, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) significantly reduced perceived stress, sleep disturbance, and symptom severity.
Mindfulness is a type of meditation in which distracting thoughts and feelings are not ignored but are acknowledged. You observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. This increases awareness, clarity and acceptance of our present reality. We learn to control our thoughts and feelings rather than our thoughts and feelings controlling us.
The idea of paying attention to pain on purpose seems absurd. Most people want to forget about their pain. They want to escape it, run away from it, wish they could ignore it or get rid of it somehow. In reality, negative thoughts about our pain only make it worse. They also fuel anxiety and depression.
The Cycle Of Pain
Pain comes in two forms, primary pain, and secondary pain. Primary pain tends to arise from illness, injury, or damage to the body or nervous system. Secondary pain is the mind’s reaction to primary pain such as anger or fear. We can become consumed in thoughts about our pain and suffering. Thoughts like “This pain will never go away” or “I’m a weak person because I can’t deal with this pain”, creates a state of ‘resistance’.
“What we resist persists.”
Resistance makes stress, depression, and worries about the future worse. With fibromyalgia, this sets up a vicious cycle. Resistance results in more stress to an already overactive stress (fight or flight) response. The extra stress results in more pain.
What Mindfulness Meditation Involves
The practice of mindfulness meditation is to achieve a state of alert, focused relaxation by paying attention to thoughts and sensations without judgment. Remember, we are only concerned about the present -this very moment. Thinking about the past -blaming or judging yourself- or worrying about the future can generate stress. Staying calm and focused on the present moment can bring your nervous system back in balance.
Mindful meditations bring you into the present moment by focusing your attention on a single action. This could be the flow of your deep-breathing-meditation breathing, a few repeated words, or the sensations in your body. You can also focus your attention to sounds, sights or smells around you. Some forms of mindfulness meditation encourage you to acknowledge and then release internal thoughts.
To practice mindfulness meditation, you will need:
- A quiet environment. Choose a place where you can relax without distractions or interruptions.
- A comfortable position. Choose a position that causes as little muscle strain as possible. One that encourages an alert but relaxed state of mind. You can sit up with your back straight, either in a chair or on the floor. Or you may find lying down is best.
- A point of focus. You can meditate with your eyes closed or open. Your focus point can be internal (a feeling or imaginary scene). It can be external (a flame or object in your surroundings). Or focus on a meaningful word or phrase that you repeat throughout the meditation.
- An observant, uncritical attitude. Don’t worry about distracting thoughts that go through your mind. Don’t worry about how well you are doing. If thoughts intrude during your meditation session, don’t fight them. Just turn them back to your focus point.
Try to meditate for 20 to 30 minutes every day. When starting out, meditate often for short periods of time—ten, fifteen, or twenty minutes. So you could meditate for ten minutes in the morning and ten minutes in the evening. The greatest results occur after eight weeks of practicing.
How Mindfulness Meditation Helps With Pain
Mindfulness meditation can provide natural pain relief by changing the way information is processed in the brain. Activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, (relaxation response) results in many physical changes that can help to reduce pain. These changes decrease muscle tension and release pain-relieving neurotransmitters.
Mindfulness can reduce pain by paying attention to the pain rather than ignoring it. A meditative state allows a person to separate the physical sensations from the emotional experiences of pain. It can also change the way people relate to symptoms. Resulting in a less judgemental stance toward pain and less attachment to pain.
Mindfulness meditation leads to:
- Relaxation – Relaxation is important for coping with pain. Pain is not only stressful in itself, but stress exacerbates pain. Relaxation calms down your nervous system, which often becomes sensitized when pain persists for a long time. Relaxation also boosts your body’s natural pain modifiers or “feel good” hormones.
- Acceptance – We often feel like we are in a battle with our pain and just want to get rid of it. This is understandable. But it makes us more frustrated, anxious or depressed when we can’t control the pain. Mindfulness is about accepting what is here right now as best we can, including pain. This is not being resigned to a life of pain, it is being more open to what happens next.
- Mental Clarity – Negative thoughts drive negative feelings, which can increase our pain. Thinking negatively about pain can make us dwell on the pain and feel helpless. Mindfulness meditation can reduce these negative thoughts. With mindfulness meditation, we start to see thoughts for what they are. Rather than facts, which lessens their impact. Which is critical in treating the emotional impacts of pain, such as depression and anxiety.
Mindful meditation also results in more awareness of one’s physical state. Increased awareness may lead to behaviors that involve taking better care of the body.
How To Start Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation is not difficult or complicated. Although it does take some effort and persistence. A good way to start mindfulness meditation is by choosing a time and place to practice. It doesn’t take a lot of time, only 20 minutes out of your day. Start with 10 minutes twice a day. You won’t need any special equipment. All you need is a place to sit, stand or lie undisturbed for the duration of your meditation.
The meditation below is a simple breath-based meditation. It demonstrates the basic technique and only takes a few minutes.
- Sit erect, but relaxed in a straight-backed chair with your feet flat on the floor. If you cannot sit, then lie on a mat or blanket on the floor or on your bed. Allow your arms and hands to be as relaxed as possible.
- Close your eyes and focus your awareness on your breath as it flows into and out of your body. Feel the sensation the air makes as it flows in through your nose or mouth, down your throat, and into your lungs. Feel the expansion of your chest and belly as you breathe. Focus your awareness on where the sensations are the strongest. Stay focused on each in-breath and out-breath. Observe them without trying to alter them in any way or expecting anything special to happen.
- When your mind wanders, just refocus your awareness back to your breath. Try not to criticize yourself. Minds wander. It’s what they do. Realizing your mind has wandered and encouraging it to refocus on your breath is central to the practice of mindfulness.
- Your mind may become calm -or maybe not. Your mind may become filled with thoughts or powerful emotions such as fear or anger. Whatever happens, observe as best you can without reacting to your experience or trying to change anything. Just return your awareness back to the sensations of your breath.
- After a few minutes or longer if you prefer, open your eyes and take in your surroundings.
The simple breath-based meditation comes from the book You Are Not Your Pain: Using Mindfulness to Relieve Pain, Reduce Stress, and Restore Well-Being. The book provides a step by step guide of short meditation practices to help those who suffer from chronic pain. The physical book comes with a CD and the Kindle version comes with audio tracks of the meditations that you can download.
Pain Doesn’t Have To Rule Your Life
Pain cannot be ignored or wished away. It not only involves physical discomfort but also your perception, feelings, and thoughts. Stress and pain can turn into an inescapable cycle. You’re in pain, so you feel stressed. Then the additional stress ratchets up the pain even more.
Research shows mindfulness meditation can significantly reduce the stress that can arise from chronic pain and illness. It may not completely end your pain, but it will ensure that it no longer dominates your life.
“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” -Haruki Murakami
Mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to the experience instead of life passing you by. Any activity can be done with mindfulness. Cleaning your home, driving, walking, and exercising can be incorporated into a mindfulness practice. Simply tune into the sensations you are experiencing in any given moment.
Last night I dreamt I was doing the breath-based meditation in my sleep. I woke up completely relaxed and I still feel relaxed hours later. I guess it’s working in more ways than one. Who knew? LOL.