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When it comes to chronic pain, studies show the mind plays a large part in either making our experience better or worse.
Understanding how to work with the mind is especially important when dealing with pain because all too often our minds unknowingly make our experience harder than it needs to be.
It’s easy to get caught up in fearful thoughts, worrying about the pain, scared it will get worse, resenting our experience and wishing things were different.
Not only do these habits of mind negatively impact our mental health, but they can also even amplify physical symptoms of pain and worsen our experience.
If we've got a way of managing the pain that's really working for us – great - then we should keep doing whatever we're doing. But if we find that we're experiencing chronic pain and our way of dealing with it, being with it, and relating to it is not working for us, then we need to look at other methods.
For pain that can't always be made to go away, mindfulness has been found to be tremendously helpful.
Obviously, you need to do what you can medically to alleviate pain and its underlying causes, but it is not always possible to totally eradicate it. While mindfulness won’t eliminate pain, studies confirm it can reduce pain and the suffering associated with it by helping you reduce reactivity, stress, despair and anxiety around pain.
The first research on Pain and Mindfulness was published in the early 1980s based on the work by Jon Kabat-Zinn. He was working with people who had severe chronic pain.
The medical system wasn't able to fix their pain, so, he took those people on board and gave them skills in mindfulness over an eight-week period, in what is now called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program. About 80% of people who went through that program experienced major reductions in their pain and suffering associated with the pain.
Other studies looked at specific pain syndromes, for example fibromyalgia, chronic back pain, inflammatory pain, etc. and continued to confirm that mindfulness can be tremendously helpful for pain.
Mindfulness is simple and powerful supplement to, not a replacement for, traditional medical treatments for pain.
As a practice mindfulness is extremely useful for lessening the mind’s amplifying effect and for learning to live as well and happily as possible despite, or with pain.
Studies show that mindfulness not only supports mental wellbeing and our ability to cope with pain and discomfort, but it also supports healing if that’s physically possible.
Mindfulness improves the psychological experience of pain by:
The goal of mindfulness is not to totally get rid of pain but to change our relationship with it and in doing so to experience relief and improve healing amid discomfort.
Mindfulness positively shifts our perspective and opens new possibilities.
Repeatedly coming back to the present moment, learning how to accept our situation and not to feed unhelpful mind states, reduces emotional distress and can even change pain intensity.
Learning how to access calm and ease, and how to be kind and compassionate with ourselves - even while experiencing discomfort - is also really helpful.
Let’s look at the subject of chronic pain and mindfulness a little more closely.
Whenever we have pain and discomfort it’s quite normal to feel anxious and concerned, to worry how we’ll cope, what the pain means for our quality of life, and whether it will get worse.
Unfortunately, if we don’t know how to work with our mind, catastrophizing, worrying, ruminating, and being in a mental war with pain just makes the experience worse.
Studies show the biggest difference to our experience of pain is directly related to how the mind makes sense of things. That includes what we give attention to and what kind of attitude we bring to our experience.
This is where mindfulness practice can make a big difference.
Mindfulness trains the mind to repeatedly come back to the present moment, to be calmer within the experience of pain, and to be less fixated on it. Also. opening out our attention to whatever else is going on in our lives can lessen pain.
Many of these practices help us to switch off the stress response when it's not required. That’s one of the things we’re doing when we practise mindfulness.
And while it may seem counterintuitive to lean into the very thing we're wishing to avoid, paradoxically, unexpectedly, it helps us feel more in control.
The ancient story of ‘The Two Arrows’ beautifully illustrates why working with the mind is particularly important.
If a person is struck by an arrow, it is painful. But if the person is struck by a second arrow it’s even more painful!
The first arrow is something that causes us pain, like an injury or illness, but the second arrow is the unhelpful reaction we bring to our experience, like anger, fear, resistance, or resentment.
In life, we can’t always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is optional and often causes far more suffering than the first!
When we’re not mindful, it’s easy to bring on the second arrow with a thought stream of unhelpful thinking about the first arrow, in this case the pain in the body. The mind might project an idea of what the future is going to be like – “Oh, I can't stand this. This is awful, how long will it go on for?” Or the mind might get caught up ruminating about the past, perhaps blaming ourselves for choices we made which may have contributed or even caused this pain.
When the mind starts resisting and catastrophising about our experience, the second arrow has made its mark, and suffering really amplifies.
Becoming obsessed with and reactive to pain also tends to make us hypervigilant. Always being on the lookout simply adds more stress to our system and inadvertently hypersensitises the brain’s pain circuits, increasing pain messages and accentuating pain.
Through mindfulness we’re learning to cultivate a different way of coping and relating to the experience of pain and discomfort, which can dramatically improve our quality of life.
We’re not trying to control pain, so much as being less controlled by it.
While everyone experiences pain from time to time the Awakened Mind Pain and Mindfulness program is specifically designed to help people whose pain is more persistent or severe.
To ensure this program is as supportive as possible we teamed up with Dr Craig Hassed from Monash University. Craig is a medical doctor and a global thought leader on the application of mindfulness in important areas like medicine, illness, and chronic pain.
The Awakened Mind Pain program includes animations to explain how mindfulness works, bespoke meditations and a series of podcasts with Dr Hassed for people who want to deepen their understanding about the benefits of mindfulness and meditation.
Click here to watch a short animation about the impact of our mental habits on pain.
There are twelve meditations in the Awakened Mind Pain and Mindfulness program, each carefully designed to help you manage your experience of pain and discomfort.
Each meditation is available in a 3, 5, 10, 15- and 20-minute version. We strongly recommend you start with the 10-minute versions as they include all the important instructions.
The program can be done individually or as a group. Everything you need is housed on the Awakened Mind app.
The first 2 meditations in the Awakened Mind Pain and Mindfulness program cover the important basics of how to mindfully meditate and ease tension in the mind and body. If you’d like to try a deep relaxation meditation from the program, use this link.
Meditations 3 and 4 support you to deal with discomfort by opening your awareness up to your surroundings. This is an important skill to learn, especially for those times when pain becomes acute and difficult to cope with.
Meditations 5 and 6 help you to cultivate deeper levels of kindness and compassion toward yourself and your situation. Studies show that these practices can have a profoundly positive impact on wellbeing.
Meditations 7 to 12 advance your understanding of the nature of pain, how to find and let go of deeply held resistances and tensions and finally how to work with and let go of some of the most subtle mental habits that add to our suffering. If you’d like to try a meditation for staying with pain and noticing your attitude and reactions to pain, use this link.
The bonus Neurosync™ audio tracks can be used whenever you just want to relax. Studies indicate that the sophisticated brainwave entrainment technology in Neurosync™ can be profoundly supportive when dealing with pain and discomfort.
While they don’t teach you important life skills like the meditations, the advanced sound technology with Neurosync™ helps with relaxing the muscles which can make treatments and medications more effective, while decreasing pain.
Remember, there are no guarantees how things will work out.
Mindfulness is about giving yourself the best possible chance of shifting the probabilities a certain way, by bringing balance back to the system and helping nature with healing if healing is possible.