According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Nothing needs fixing. Nothing needs to be forced to stop, or change, or go away.” This is particularly true and powerful in the setting of chronic pain. Pain can be all encompassing, both physically and emotionally but the unique practice known as Mindful Based Stressed Reduction, or MBSR, illuminates the difference between thinking and awareness. More specifically, constantly thinking about chronic pain makes it seem as though it is ever-present and all encompassing. However, bringing awareness to pain gives a more realistic perception of what you are experiencing. Mindfully acknowledging the presence and absence of pain may reveal that your pain actually rises and falls throughout the day, relieving the some of the anxiety and frustration that accompanies it. MRI’s have also revealed that mindfulness and meditation can decrease the pain sensation experienced in the brain.
Our minds naturally want to ruminate on negative thoughts when we are experiencing the sensation of pain and it may seem counterintuitive to give more attention to our pain. However, that is exactly what practicing mindfulness allows us to do, and it can be incredibly healing. Rather than giving attention and wishing that the pain would subside, recognize without the judgment the frequency, intensity and duration of what you are feeling. You may even be relieved to learn that it is not nearly as intense or prolonged as you might have thought.
MBSR uses these simple strategies to cope with chronic pain:
- Body Scan– sit in a comfortable position and bring awareness to each part of your body beginning with your toes and moving upwards. Acknowledge when you reach the area of pain and then keep moving. This technique will help to train your brain to accept the feeling of pain or discomfort without first reacting to it and assigning it an emotion.
- Breathing– taking a few deep breaths upon the initial feelings of pain can help calm your mind and keep you grounded. Instead of paying attention to the sensation of pain, focus on your breath.
Distractions- when the pain seems like it may be unbearable, a healthy distraction may help to redirect your thoughts. Choose something positive and productive to keep you from dwelling on a negative physical experience.
While physical pain may be unavoidable, meeting pain with awareness helps you cope with the discomfort and can help to relieve the negative emotions attached to it.