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From our collaborators at Johns Hopkins Medicine | Think this way to reduce your chronic pain

Video + article cover how pain conditions can improve with mindfulness meditation

Young mom doing yoga outside by lake

Mindfulness meditation is a form of present-moment awareness—noticing what is happening inside our bodies and in the world around us as it is happening. In our busy days and lives, most of us are often on “autopilot”—the opposite of mindfulness. Why does this matter? Research has shown that mindfulness meditation and mindful awareness can reduce stress, depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance and pain, as well as contribute to an overall sense of well-being. Moreover, research shows that mindfulness meditation actually changes brain structure and function in healthy ways.

In mindfulness meditation, we are not trying to change our experience. Instead, it is simply about noticing and accepting experiences in the present moment with a sense of curiosity and openness, whether that experience is an intense emotion, sensations in the body, the rhythm of breathing, or fleeting thoughts. In this regard, mindfulness meditation is not the same as trying to achieve a certain state, like relaxation. It is about bringing our awareness to the present moment with repeated practice and allowing feelings and bodily sensations to be present without trying to push them away. A natural by-product is often relaxation.

Mindfulness meditation and pain management: two components

One of the most robust areas that has shown positive improvement with mindfulness meditation is the domain of pain. A variety of pain conditions have shown improvement with mindfulness meditation in the form of decreased pain intensity, decreased pain disability, and increased pain acceptance.

1) Embrace the physical experience of pain

There are two synergistic components of mindfulness meditation that are integral in our experience of pain. First, while it sounds counter-intuitive, embracing the physical experience of pain (as opposed to pushing the experience away) can diminish its intensity. In other words, with mindfulness meditation you can begin to change your relationship to the pain and thus your actual experience of the pain by “turning towards the pain.”

2) Notice how thoughts can contribute to pain

Second, we know that our thoughts can contribute to our experience of pain. With daily mindfulness meditation practice, you may begin to notice how your thoughts can contribute to your pain. For example, you may notice that you catastrophize the pain (i.e. “Oh no. Here it is again. What if this pain gets worse or intensifies during my meeting?”).

With mindfulness meditation, you can begin to gain some space from these thoughts and realize that they are only thoughts. They do not necessarily represent the reality of the present moment. You can just note, “there is my catastrophizing thought” or another phrase that captures the experience. In this way, you can notice how our thoughts take us away from the present—the only reality.

Practical mindfulness: Tips for pain and discomfort

  • Breathe with the pain. If pain is part of your present moment experience, try directing your breathing into the region of pain and out from the region of pain with a sense of open curiosity. If at any point this practice becomes too distressing, shift your awareness to something more peaceful inside or outside of the body (e.g., the rhythm of your breath, sensations in the hands, sounds around you). In this regard, you are not pushing the pain away but choosing to bring another aspect of your experience to the forefront. Over time and with practice, you may notice an increased ability “to be with the pain.” Approach this practice for small periods of time to begin with (perhaps a few breath cycles) and build from there. You may ask yourself “can I be with this experience (my pain) in this moment, just for a moment?”
  • Label the experience. Take a few minutes to become aware of the quality of the pain or discomfort (is it sharp or dull, throbbing, burning, etc.). Describe what you are experiencing to yourself in a few words, as well as any accompanying emotions—frustration, irritability, sadness. Labeling is a simple tool that may begin to diffuse what you are feeling—both physically and psychologically.
  • Drop the story. Much of our stress comes from the “story” we create in our minds about how things should be, how they will be in the future, or how they were in the past. See if you can notice when your mind is traveling beyond the “facts” of what is true of the current reality and is creating this story. See if you can bring yourself back to the facts of the current situation. Try these three steps: State the facts in one sentence (e.g., I have a dull, aching sensation in my head), notice add-on thoughts that take you away from the facts (e.g., this will never go away), and return to the facts.

Manage expectations: mindfulness meditation takes practice, time to build

While these tips may seem simple enough, it is important to remember that mindfulness meditation is hard work. It may be useful to think of your practice as building the “mindfulness muscle.” It takes time, commitment, and repetition. Be patient, be kind to yourself, and remember that every moment is a new opportunity to begin again. You may notice over time that you are beginning to respond to your pain in a different way rather than to react to it habitually.

Respond rather than react to pain

One of the most well researched mindfulness meditation program is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). During the course, participants practice a variety of meditations to foster present-moment awareness, including breathing meditation, guided sitting meditation, body scan, mindful eating, mindful walking, as well as gentle yoga and stretching. While mindfulness meditation does not take the place of other treatments recommended by your physician and the practice of healthy behaviors, it can be a powerful adjunct to these therapies.

Content courtesy of Neda Gould, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and associate director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. Content reproduced with permission of the office of Marketing and Communications for Johns Hopkins Medicine International. Additional reuse and reprinting is not allowed. The information aims to educate readers and is not a substitute for consultation with a physician.

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