Why Mindfulness Helps With Pain
The effects of 2020 have been astronomical. Stress, anxiety and isolation are indisputably on the rise, along with the number of people suffering from persistent aches and pains. At Core Clapton we see more and more patients complaining of discomfort that, despite the best efforts to stretch, relax and exercise, just don’t seem to go away. So, why is that?
The complex nature of pain is discussed in our recent blog, “Why does my neck always hurt?”. When thinking of these complexities, it is helpful to adopt a biopsychosocial perspective, meaning that we look at our aches and pains as the product of biological, psychological and social factors. Interesting, isn’t it? It becomes more and more evident that the mind and body are inherently interconnected; thus, for an issue like pain, spending time distinguishing between the two may divert us from finding real solutions. Indeed, too often we think that completing our daily sets of exercises and stretches will free us from our aches, and too often we are left disappointed and frustrated when they don’t. In this blog we hope to illustrate exactly why mindfulness can be considered a mind-body practice, and how it can help unwind months and months of physical and emotional stress, ultimately helping to manage your pain.
Is it really for you?
Mindfulness is not only for the long haired, socks-and-sandal types. Often thought to have started with buddhist religion, it has been practised in different forms and flavours across many religions and cultures for centuries, and only in the last 20 years western science is understanding why.
So, what is mindfulness?
Mindfulness can be thought of, simply, as paying attention to what is arising and passing in our minds and the world around us in the present moment, without judgment. In essence, it’s about being fully engaged with whatever we are doing or experiencing in the present moment, be it a task, a negative thought or a particular bodily feeling.
Nothing extraordinary, you may think... what does it take to be always fully focused on the task we are accomplishing, to be listening to how our body is feeling, to be aware of our thoughts and emotions? A lot… as the reality is that our mind wanders, having between 50 and 70 thousand thoughts per day, and most of the time we’re on ‘auto-pilot mode’ throughout our routines and daily tasks, disengaged from our mind and body. What we are starting to realise is that the more time we spend in this automated state, distracted and distant from the present moment, the more difficult it is to be centred and in control when challenging situations and feelings arise. And the more likely we are to ruminate (go round in circles) with negative thoughts or feelings, especially when we have pain.
Mindfulness meditation is the way we can practice and give a structure to the state of mindfulness. Think of it as the training providing us the building blocks to be more mindful in our everyday lives, making it more intuitive to adopt that present moment awareness. There isn’t a best way of practicing mindfulness meditation; everyone has their own style and technique. Some of the most common ways will focus on a particular aspect of our body function, like the breath, others on slowly shifting the attention through different areas of the body, such as a body-scan meditation. But for both styles the fundations are the same: just sit, or lie down, slow the mind and allow yourself time to just observe.
Observe the breath or the different areas or your body without the need to influence, intervene or drift away with our thoughts. But there are also other ways… you can be mindful when practicing movements such as in yoga, tai-chi and qi gong; or simply when engaging in a task of ordinary life like washing up, as long as you are attentive, right here and right now.
Mindfulness and the brain
Well, what do we actually know from a scientific perspective? Prior to the year 2000, very little. There was a grand total of 39 peer-reviewed scientific articles on the subject of mindfulness… not many at all. Then the boom! With the new millenium there have been over 4,000 articles published. We are going to walk through some of the most recent findings...
The best data currently available on the benefits of mindfulness are improved symptoms of anxiety. While anxiety can be a normal reaction to stressors, when experienced without recovery, it can be debilitating. Focusing the attention (in a non-judgemental way) on sensations in the body in a type of meditation known as a body scan can reduce the experience of anxiety.
Is the mind of the Dalai Lama really that different from yours or mine? Well yes, it is. Unfortunately, from around the age of 30 we know that the brain begins to atrophy (a process of cell degeneration) and starts losing its ability to learn new tasks, adapt to new needs and environments, a process known as brain plasticity. Remarkable research conducted by neuroscientist Richard Davidson, has shown that the brain of individuals practicing consistent mindfulness, particularly Tibetan monks, show above average levels of plasticity and, generally, less age related changes.
How many times have you checked your social media while reading this blog? Are you easily distracted when driving or having a conversation? Mindfulness allows us to strengthen our ability to pay attention allowing us to be more fully present, resist our impulses towards distraction and accomplish tasks with less mind wandering. Ultimately, making us more efficient and, hopefully, a better company.
Mindfulness is highly effective at reducing stress. Sitting down, taking a few slow and deep breaths, allowing yourself a moment to re-engage with your body in the present moment, this is all it may take to put some order in the chaos you are experiencing within and outside of yourself. Stress, we know, is directly correlated to pain. The more you feel overwhelmed by events, the more likely is that your brain will focus on pain. On the other hand, the more you have a relaxed and confident mindset, the less the likelihood of being in pain.
Mindfulness and pain
There is a growing amount of research showing that mindfulness is an effective tool at reducing pain and that mindful people may be better equipped to manage pain. Studies analysing brain activity, by means of functional MRI, have shown that brain circuits involved in pain production are less active in people with more developed mindful attention. On the other hand, areas of the brain that allow us to be more chilled-out and flexible when facing pain, ie. parts of the prefrontal cortex, tend to be more active in mindful people in pain.
In other words, the mindful approach to pain is that of acknowledging and accepting the feeling, trusting that it is nothing too serious or threatening, gently moving around without fear… Conversely, when unmindfully approaching pain we tend to ignore or block out the feeling, rather like trying to ignore an elephant in a room, but our brains are cleverer than that and instead cause us to become hyper focused on the negative feelings. Unwittingly we begin to ruminate and fear the (painful) consequences, often assuming the worst outcome, and therefore moving as little as possible, all things that tend to make the pain worse.
Are pain and suffering the same thing?
Pain is an emotional and physical experience that most people find unpleasant and want to avoid it. Although meditation may relieve stressful factors that can aggravate your pain it does not entirely eliminate the experience, instead it relieves the resistance and suffering we may have in response. Pain is felt in a lot of things that we can’t control, a cut, an illness, a muscle strain... suffering, instead, is felt in the ‘emotional tension’ around these things.
For example, I am currently dealing with a pain in my right shoulder. It hurts every time I lay down to sleep and it has been bothering me for longer than I am used to. My mind has been reeling with, “I wonder if it’s something serious?”, “I’m not going to be able to sleep as well tonight.”, “I wish it didn’t hurt”, “What if it gets worse and I can’t get medical help?”, “What if it never gets better?”, increasing the emotional tension and worsening the experience of pain. By taking the experience for what it is, with mindfulness, without creating a narrative of, Why me? Why now? I can notice what it really feels like without the added layer of suffering instead of immediately pushing it away and blocking it out. Do I feel tension, pressure, burning? Does it feel better when I move it or stretch in this or that direction? And so on. This is mindfulness, being in control, not overwhelmed, reducing suffering around the pain,
When should you start?
If you have a few seconds and enough curiosity, then right now. The breathing exercise I am going to describe to you is called, Box Breathing and is a simple exercise to help you focus your attention on your breath. Before starting, you can find a comfortable seated position with your feet resting on the floor and your hands in your lap.
- Slowly exhale through your mouth for a count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of four.
- Inhale through your mouth for a count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of four.
Repeat this for a few cycles and while you are breathing, notice where you feel the breath the most. Is it the rise and fall of your abdomen or chest? The feel of the air against your lips and nose? If thoughts arise then simply notice that you are thinking and bring your attention back to your breath. There is no “right” way to practice mindfulness, the key is attention.
If you want to practice mindfulness in a guided fashion, there are a few apps that can help you with setting a regular practice, such as Calm, Head Space, and 10% happier.
Osteopathy is a hands-on therapy aimed at restoring health and relieving from aches and pains. Osteopaths are aware that everytime they therapeutically lay hands on patients and every word that is being said throughout the consultation, is having an effect on the patient’s psychology, be it a sense relaxation, physical pleasure, reassurance… the psychological effects of treatment play an essential role in contributing to achieve a pain free state. It is not unlikely that osteopaths will, thus, employ mindfulness approaches to pain management. This may be done whilst receiving hand-on treatment, as you may be guided through a visualisation of a painful area, an acceptance and acknowledging of the present moment state of our body; or you may be shown a personalised adaptation of mindfulness practice to do on a daily basis that can fit your needs.
Since not long ago, mindfulness used to be thought only for the hippies and wishful thinkers. By now, scientific evidence has been mounting to show its health benefits for a range of things including pain, stress and anxiety, better attention and focus. There is no one way of practicing mindfulness; the general principle is that of bringing the awareness back to the present moment, trying to stop that train of thoughts that often keeps us distracted and not in tune with our body or feelings. One way of getting better at being mindful is that of having a regular meditation practice. Although not immediate or easy, the effects of this practice may be vital for leading a healthier, pain-free life in the hustle and bustle of our daily life. You can try a 30 day meditation challenge and keep us posted on your progress.