Using Mindfulness to Combat Pain

The Cognitive Therapeutics Team frequently advocates for non-pharmacological approaches to well-being in order to protect the body and brain against the possible side effects of medication. In line with this thinking, we see promise in research that suggests mindfulness can combat symptoms of pain.

Practicing mindfulness means taking measures to live fully in the present moment. By focusing on your current state, both physically and emotionally, and experiencing how you feel without passing judgment, it may become easier to let go of anxieties associated with the past or the future. Practicing mindfulness is akin to meditation – elements of mindfulness are used in many meditative relaxation techniques, including tai chi, yoga, prayer and more.

Dr. Sara Lazar, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, says, “Mindfulness is basically paying attention to the present moment without judging.”

How to Perform Mindfulness

In order to practice mindfulness, sit in a quiet and comfortable space. You should be comfortable – sit up straight, but not stiff, with your hands resting on your thighs. Focus your attention on how your body feels. How do your feet feel on the floor? How do your hands feel on your legs? Do you feel any physical discomfort?

Next, focus on your breathing, paying particular attention to each exhale. If you become distracted with outside concerns, imagine them as clouds floating by and watch them pass as you return to your breathing. Experts recommend practicing mindfulness for five to 10 minutes once a day, gradually building up to 20 minute sessions.

Why Mindfulness Can Help Pain

Often, feelings of pain are intensified by our negative reactions; our emotional aversion to pain affects how we experience it. Clinical studies have proven that practicing mindfulness techniques can reduce some of the pain associated with chronic conditions, including arthritis and fibromyalgia. Instead of anticipating pain in fear, mindfulness can help you take a step back and experience pain objectively. Where does the pain start? What does the sensation feel like? Does it move or change over time?

Researchers have studied the brains of individuals who practice mindfulness versus those who do not through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Interestingly, they found that those who practice mindfulness have greater activity in pain centers of the brain despite reporting that they feel significantly less pain than others. However, they have less activity in areas involved in emotion and memory – by experiencing pain as a sensation instead of something that is unpleasant, they are able to mentally block some of the pain.

Depending on the severity and cause, mindfulness may not work against every type of pain. However, mindfulness has a multitude of other benefits, including an increase in happiness and a reduction in stress, anxiety and depression. Start today by practicing for five minutes three days a week, and build up from there!