Can mindfulness actually help me feel less pain?
Mindfulness is about being ‘present’ or in the moment – not trying to split your attention between multiple thoughts or tasks. While the idea is really quite simple, practising mindfulness is not always easy. It takes some discipline and it often requires us to let go of our expectations of ourselves to stay focused.
We’ve all had experiences of being entirely engrossed in what we’re doing – this most often happens while doing the things we enjoy most, perhaps playing with a young child, taking a quiet walk through nature, or working in the garden. These are moments of mindful awareness and they tend to occur quite naturally when we allow the time and space for them. They are often characterised by the switching off of our very human tendency to wonder off into the reliving and analysing recent events or forward planning for future events.
The practice of mindfulness is really about making time and space to be in the moment without shifting our focus to the past or the future. It’s about training our minds to keep coming back to what is happening right now, in the present moment. The easiest way to practice this is to pick something to pay attention to – like the flow of your breath or listening to different sounds in your environment. It’s about being aware each time your mind wonders and gently drawing your attention back to your chosen focus.
You are practicing returning to the here and now, over and over again and the more you practice, the more it becomes a habit. Just like training your ability to hit a tennis ball quicker and more accurately, you can train the capabilities of your mind.
Regular mindfulness appears to be helpful for people with chronic or persistent pain and has effects in reducing pain intensity and the distress associated with pain. Meditation practice also seems to improve quality of life in other ways like improving sleep quality, depression and overall wellness.
We’re still a long way off understanding the mind and why meditation appears to be so helpful in coping with pain and illness but it likely helps us in several important ways. There are a few listed here but there are likely many more ways in which mindfulness meditation can help people with chronic pain.
Why not give it a try? What have you got to lose?
Here are some of the ways mindfulness can help you
- Aids Relaxation – Mindfulness is more than just a relaxation technique but relaxation one of its key benefits. Relaxation is very helpful in soothing your nervous system, which frequently becomes ‘sensitised’ by stress, particularly prolonged or chronic stress. This sensitisation can increase pain intensity and distress and can be a critical factor in the persistence of pain. Relaxation seems to wind back your sensitivity by boosting production and release of natural pain modifying chemicals like endorphins, our feel-good hormones.
- Supports more flexible thinking – Negative thoughts, beliefs and feelings can also sensitise our nervous system and increase our pain. When times are tough, we can get stuck in these negative thought patterns and this can contribute to the persistence of pain and the depression and anxiety that frequently comes with it. Mindfulness can help us ‘change the channel’ mentally and disengage from our negative thoughts. This can be an important step in overcoming the distress and some of the disability associated with pain.
- Improves sleep – Even a small amount of mindfulness meditation can help calm our restless minds and improve our sleep. Many of us struggle to sleep because we lie awake thinking about work, family, health, pain or money and just can’t find an ‘off button’. If this sounds familiar, practicing simple mindfulness exercises can help you calm your mind and sleep better. It helps to reduce stress and improve the quality and duration of sleep.