What does mindfulness meditation have to do with pain?
A rapidly expanding body of research is showing that practising mindfulness meditation can be immensely helpful for people with persistent pain. Just practicing meditation can be as effective as joining a multidisciplinary group pain rehabilitation program in terms of improving coping ability and functional outcomes.
People report less distress and can tolerate more acute pain in the research laboratory when they are practising mindfulness, compared to people who are not meditating. Scientists have also used brain imaging to show that we process the emotional aspects of pain differently while meditating so that it is less distressing.
How does mindfulness meditation help with pain?
It is still early days in terms of understanding why meditation can be so helpful in coping with pain, although the ancient origins of meditation in the different yoga and contemplative traditions suggests that people have known of these benefits for hundreds of years. However, there a few important ingredients:
1.Relaxation: Although meditation is not simply a relaxation technique, relaxation is a common helpful side effect. Relaxation is very important for coping with pain because pain is not only stressful in itself, but stress exacerbates and maintains pain. Relaxation is very helpful in calming down your nervous system, which often becomes ‘sensitised’ when pain persists for a long time. Relaxation also boosts your body’s natural pain modifiers, such as endogenous endorphins, or “feel good” hormones.
2.Acceptance: We can feel like we’re locked in a fierce battle with our pain and just want to get rid of it. While this is completely understandable, it can make us more frustrated, anxious or depressed when we can’t control the pain. Mindfulness is about accepting what is here right now as best we can, including pain, so that we can soften and be more receptive to what happens next. This is very different from being resigned to a life of pain. Mindfulness is all about curiosity and what some people call ‘beginner’s mind’.
3.Mental flexibility: Negative thoughts drive negative feelings, which can sensitise our nervous system and increase our pain. Thinking very negatively about pain, or what we call ‘pain catastrophising’, is one of the strongest predictors that short-term acute pain will become longer-term persistent pain. Mindfulness meditation can reduce these negative thoughts because it changes our relationship to thinking itself. We start to see thoughts as just ‘mental events’ rather than facts, which lessens their impact. This is especially important in treating the upsetting emotional impacts of pain and disability, such as depression and anxiety.