At some point, all of us who suffer from chronic pain are told we have to live with it. Difficult words to hear. In my practice, when there’s no more “fixing” someone’s pain with surgery or other interventions, learning to pivot and focus on living with the pain becomes the challenge. Too often, unable to hear that brutal truth, patients move on, to another provider.
Sometimes their departure is caused by feelings of having been written off, diminished or ignored. Nothing could be further from the truth. In many ways that honesty is the best medicine anyone can offer. It does not mean the pain is less real or incapacitating. Only that the time has come to learn mechanisms to move through it so it no longer decides your fate, you do.
That’s always been the focus of my posts. Helping others to understand pain doesn’t have to define who we are or how we live our lives. We get to decide the role it’ll have in our future. Believe me, as I said in my very first post– I’ve been there. I argued until I was blue in the face, sought out alternative narratives until they all said the same thing: It’s time to move on.
Now, there’s one more weapon in our arsenal to help. Meditation. That’s right, I said meditation. Yes, that mantra speaking, yoga positioning cliche without the position and mantra! When I was in college at the tender age of 16, my mother forced me to look into all ways that might ease my load, from speed reading to transcendental meditation. The speed reading never really took but the meditation did. Who among us couldn’t benefit from a few minutes a day to relax and calm our minds? I often forget this simple tool until the world becomes too much to handle. During my divorce, staff understood that a rarely closed office door meant not to knock unless it was an emergency. They knew everyone benefited from my few minutes of escape.
Meditation helps cultivate an awareness of what you’re feeling in the present moment, without judgment. By producing a sense of calm, we can focus our mind and body to control aspects of the pain and its impact, by dealing directly with the muscle tension, sweating, and irritability it causes. The idea is to relax the body and become aware of the pain without judging or fixating on it. Usually we want to run away, but mindfulness allows us to go back into the abyss and learn ways to address and control the beast.
When we are stressed, our bodies trigger the release of stress hormones, causing inflammation, that increases pain in already irritated joints. Meditation shifts our focus to something quiet and calm. When we get into that quieter state of mind, the body isn’t releasing stress hormones into the bloodstream. Instead endorphins, a natural pain reliever, floods the system. Muscles and tissues around the joints relax, inflammation recedes so that the brain can calm and feel less pain.
Several studies have shown that mindfulness-based stress reduction was more effective than drugs, including opioids, and surgery for alleviating chronic low-back pain.
One study tested healthy, pain-free people via brain scans while they experienced painful heat with a 120-degree thermal probe. After four days learning to mindfully meditate and breath deeply, they re-entered the MRI machine and endured the same pain from the 120-degree probe. They were told to use their training and indicate the physical intensity and emotional unpleasantness of the pain.
For those taught mindfulness meditation, pain intensity was cut by 27% and emotional pain reduced by 44%. That shocked the researchers since past studies have shown opioids reduces physical pain by 22%- and mindfulness had surpassed even that. But the MRI results were even more surprising. People who had practiced mindful meditation seemed to be using different brain regions than the other groups to reduce pain.
There was something more active, going on with the mindfulness meditation group. This group had increased activation in higher-order brain regions associated with attention control and enhanced cognitive control, while exhibiting a deactivation of the thalamus- a structure that acts as the gatekeeper for pain to enter the brain. This result has not been seen with any other technique.
How to meditate
Get comfortable in a quiet place, with few interruptions. Close your eyes and focus on your breath.
Breathe normally and notice the rhythm of your breaths – your chest expanding and contracting. On deeper breaths, let go of body tension as you exhale slowly.
Begin by meditating for just five minutes. Use a kitchen timer or the timer on your smart phone or watch. Practice meditating a few times a week to start, and work up to 20 minutes.
Meditation is a practice. Your body and mind experience benefits even when it feels as though you didn’t meditate well. There is no perfection to achieve, just a practice of being aware and present. Thoughts coming and going are normal. Observe the thought, without judgment or engaging with it, and go back to your breathing.
Just three weeks of daily meditation for even a few minutes, can rewire the brain to be less stressed and more responsive, helping us to be more present, calmer and function better.
Our minds respond to whatever we focus on. Meditation helps us to use that focus in a powerful, positive way. It empowers us, reinforcing that the pain does not control the future, we do. What’s the worst thing that can happen? You’ll use the time to relax and take a much needed respite from your busy day.