When you are in pain, you want it to go away as quickly as possible. Chronic pain is frustrating exactly because it does not do this. The last thing we want is to pay more attention to our pain. But that’s the premise behind mindfulness, a highly effective practice for chronic pain (among other useful benefits).
Mindfulness is paying attention to something on purpose with open curiosity free from judgment. This is why mindfulness is so helpful. Instead of focusing on how badly you want the pain to stop, you pay attention to pain with curiosity and without judgment.
This approach is very different from what the mind does naturally when the body experiences the physiological sensation of pain. The mind typically launches into a litany of judgments and negative thoughts. It starts ruminating about how bad the pain is and tries to wish it away. The mind judges the pain, and that only makes it worse. In fact, the negative thoughts and judgments not only exacerbate the pain, they also fuel anxiety and depression.
What also makes matters worse is that the mind start brainstorming ways to soothe the pain. If you trap a Roomba, it keeps bouncing off the enclosure. The mind does the same when scouring for solutions. This creates a lot of frustration, stress and a feeling of being trapped.
Mindfulness teaches to be curious about the intensity of pain, instead of letting the mind\ jump into thoughts like, “This is awful.”
It also teaches to let go of goals and expectations. When you expect something will ease your pain, and it doesn’t or not as much as you’d like, the mind goes into alarm- or solution-mode. You may start thinking thoughts like “nothing ever works.”
Instead, try to engage with pain just as it is. Mindfulness is not about achieving a certain goal – like minimizing pain – but learning to relate to pain differently.
This is a learning mindset, as opposed to an achievement-oriented mindset. In other words, as you are applying mindfulness to pain, you might consider your experience and ask yourself: “What can I learn about this pain? What do I notice?”
From the perspective of mindfulness, nothing needs fixing. Nothing needs to be forced to stop, or change, or go away.
Awareness and thinking are very different capacities. Both, of course, are extremely potent and valuable, but from the perspective of mindfulness, it is awareness that is healing, rather than thinking. Also, it is only awareness itself that can balance out the various inflammations of thought and the emotional agitations and distortions that accompany the frequent storms that blow through the mind, especially in the face of a chronic pain condition.
Mindfulness provides a more accurate perception of pain. For instance, you might think that you’re in pain all day. But bringing awareness to your pain might reveal that it actually peaks, valleys and completely subsides. One of my clients believed that his pain was constant throughout the day. But when he examined his pain, he realized it hits him about six times a day. This helped to lift his frustration and anxiety.
If you’re struggling with chronic pain, you might try these mindfulness-based strategies. It is important to notice what works for you and what doesn’t.
A body scan involves bringing awareness to each body part. You are bringing attention to what the mind wants to move away from. However, instead of immediately reacting to your pain, the body scan teaches the mind that it can actually be with what is there.
When pain arises the mind reacts automatically with thoughts, such as “I hate this, what am I going to do?” Though you can’t stop these first few negative thoughts, you can calm your mind and ground your breath.
Simply breathe in slowly and say to yourself “In,” and breathing out slowly and saying “Out.” Then you also might ask yourself, “What’s most important for me to pay attention to now?”
A distraction can be a helpful tool when your pain is high (such as anything above an 8 on a 10-point scale). The key is to pick a healthy distraction. For instance, it could be anything from playing a game on your iPad to focusing on a conversation with a friend to getting lost in a book.
Mindfulness is an effective practice for approaching chronic pain. It teaches individuals to observe their pain, and be curious about it. And, while counterintuitive, it’s this very act of paying attention that can help your pain.