Mindfulness for Pain Management
Updated: Mar 3, 2020
Our relationship with physical pain is often blurry. When we have a headache, we tend to reduce the pain with ibuprofen. If our stomach feels queasy, we self-diagnose the cause and drink an over-the-counter antacid.
But it’s important to realize that sometimes a routine of self-medication can overshadow a more complex issue. Although occasional pain is inevitable, it can be a warning sign that something else is wrong.
Our bodies tell us the truth of ourselves that our minds can deny. And while we move through the most ordinary physical tasks of every day, something inside of us is always sensing change.
Most medications, although crucial for the treatment of many diseases, can’t help us reconnect with our mind and body at the same time. The struggle of pain can sometimes derive from increased stress and tension that our bodies were warning us about, but we brushed off with over-the-counter remedies.
With pain, there are a lot of processes going underway in our body. Since pain is a multidimensional experience it involves sensory, cognitive, and affective factors. This can make its treatment complex. In an interview for a story published in Advocate Aurora Health, Dr. John Hong, a pain management specialist discusses the dynamic between pain and treatment:
“Treating chronic pain is challenging because of the complex nature of pain and the unique nature of each sufferer. Therefore, a customized approach is required for best results. It is important to understand the physical, psychological, and societal contributions to chronic pain for each suffer.”
In the interview, he also explains that chronic pain can cause low energy levels, inability to sleep, and serious psychological stress. This can result in depression, anxiety, and social isolation.
When we use opioids to treat chronic pain, for example, the misuse of the substance can increase. The statistics related to the recent opioid epidemic highlight the importance of recognizing that other treatments, like mindfulness meditation, can nourish long-term health and emotional well-being.
The practice of mindfulness
Pain is a natural part of life, but suffering is only one possible response to it that we can learn to manage. Being more subtly aware of our bodies can help us navigate our pain inducers.
It can even turn on our “body memory,” a term first coined by Edward S. Casey, a professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York, to understand the relationship between stress and trauma and how those experiences lodge in the body, as well as how they can be addressed.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a practice that has been proven to help reduce stress and support health, healing, and personal growth. Through MBSR courses, you can understand how to listen to your body more and identify when it's living through moments of distress and pain.
Separate from the scientific understanding of physical pain, Buddhist philosophy recognizes that suffering is caused by clinging and ignorance (Grewal, Kalra, & Kaush, 2018). This idea leaves room for the opportunity of gaining awareness about one's causes of illness and conducting our lives in a manner that leads to improvement.
For thousands of years, Buddhist monks have reasoned that mindfulness meditation can alter the subjective experience of pain. Yet, only recently have scientists proven health improvements through mindfulness meditation (Zeidan, F. & Vago, D, 2016). Among the findings, there is evidence demonstrating that mindfulness mechanisms significantly attenuate chronic pain.
The practice is also linked to improvements in anxiety, depression, stress, and cognition. It’s important to remember that in addition to the mental strain they bring about, these disorders also often cause physical symptoms such as muscle tension, body soreness, and headaches.
The MBSR program, popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn at UMass Medical School in the last 30 years, shares the Buddhist approach to dealing with pain. In fact, it integrates the idea of healing yourself by focusing on the development of non-judgmental awareness of everyday moments.
This is similar to the ancient meditation technique used to study the various sensations of the body, known as Vipassana Meditation. The validation of this program goes back to 1982, when a study published by Kabat-Zinn demonstrated its effectiveness for the treatment of chronic low back pain.
Clinical research findings (Bergen, Cheon and Poseemato, 2013) prove that even brief MBSR programs improve psychological health, while longer programs can improve deep-seated psychological distress such as anxiety.
Why is This Important?
People who register in MBSR programs learn to be in touch with their physical, emotional and psychological stress, in the span of 8 weeks. Moreover, courses that integrate MBSR invite people to practice self-regulation using techniques such as meditation, breathing exercises, and yoga.
Gaining these skills through an 8-week course also allows you to take your healing into your hands at home through a continued meditation practice. Once you learn the key aspects of mindfulness that relate to stress reduction and coping with pain and illness, you witness improvement in relation to your entire well-being.
The opportunities for guided mindfulness practices have steadily increased in St. Petersburg. The idea of being in the present moment and noticing your surroundings within you and around you without judgment have yielded results in the Sunshine City.
If you’re interested in exploring mindfulness for pain management, Mindful Ways to Wellness in downtown St. Petersburg offers immersive MBSR sessions and other holistic practices like Tibetan bowl meditations and restorative yoga classes.
The center’s MBSR program runs for eight consecutive weeks, each session lasting two to two and a half hours. The eight-week program is 21 to 27 hours of total in-class instruction. The program includes daily homework exercises and training videos to practice a deepening awareness during ordinary daily activities. The training videos cover topics including body scans, guided meditation, and mindful hatha yoga.
The upcoming free information sessions that serve as an orientation to the program will be held on March 18th from 7 pm to 8 pm, March 26th from 6:30 pm to 7:30 pm, April 2nd from 6:30 pm to 7:30 pm, and April 9th from 6:30 to 7:30 pm (you only need to attend one of the information sessions). The MBSR program is highly interactive and requires you to establish a daily meditation practice. If you decide to go forward with the program, the days and times for the Spring 2020 course are as follows:
April 16th (Thursday) 6pm-8:30pm
April 23rd (Thursday) 6pm-8:30pm
April 30th (Thursday) 6pm-8:30pm
May 7th (Thursday) 6pm-8:30pm
May 14th (Thursday) 6pm-8:30pm
May 21st (Thursday) 6pm-8:30pm
May 30th (Saturday) Day of Mindfulness Retreat 10am-4:30pm
June 4th (Thursday) 6pm-8:30pm
Another approach to listening to your body and minds’ need for balance is through Tibetan Bowl Sound Therapy. Used for over 2,000 years, this holistic practice helps the body and mind go into a deep relaxation state where healing and cellular repair occur. The Wellness Center offers one-hour group meditations accompanied by the Tibetan Bowls on Mondays by donation, as well as individual sound therapy sessions by appointment.
As you start practicing mindfulness, you’ll likely feel discomfort or restlessness. Know that this is perfectly normal. Your mind is simply not used to the type of stimulus that meditation can offer. But with regular practice, even a basic 10-minute meditation routine can help you improve, one daily breath at a time.
For more information about these wellness programs, be sure to explore the rest of the center's website.
Bergen, C.D., Poseemato, K., & Cheon, S. (2013). Examining the Efficacy of a Brief Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (Brief MBSR) Program on Psychological Health, Journal of American College Health, 61:6, 348-360. doi: 10.1080/07448481.2013.813853
Grewal, E., Kalra, S., Kalra, B., Kaush, U., Sutta, S., Phanvarine, M.,...Ruder, S. (2018). Diabetes Management and the Buddhist Philosophy: Toward Holistic Care. Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism, 22(6) 806-811. doi: 10.4103/ijem.IJEM_285_17
Zeidan, F., & Vago, D. R. (2016). Mindfulness meditation-based pain relief: a mechanistic account. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1373(1), 114–127. doi:10.1111/nyas.13153