Leaning into Pain to Heal Pain
Mindfulness can change the perception of pain.
Everyone's experience, tolerance of, and reactivity to pain, is unique. There is one common thread, though, that I've seen across the board that increases pain, and decreases our ability to manage it: Stress. The stress response unilaterally effects each individual in the same manner: Pain increases.
While this appears an obvious comment, many times in the middle of the stressful event, people don't realize the effect that stress is having upon them because they are so busy trying to cope. There is a complex cascade of events within the body designed to initially protect us from harm and aid in healing. The initial release of endorphins sharpens our cognitive and sensory skills and dulls pain in order to maximize our chance of getting away from danger; our living vehicle is designed to move into the red zone, and then come back down to a nice idling state when the stressful event is over. If stress becomes constant though, we start to see chronic issues such as adrenal fatigue, depression, anxiety, and increased sensitivity to pain. We're now living in the red zone instead of just visiting it upon necessity.
Emotions also influence our perception of pain.
There is no difference between emotional pain and physical pain.
All pain is experienced within the body and cannot be separated or made distinct, even though an emotion can be applied to one type of pain over another.
Movement, injury, and temperature, touch, as well as emotions, thoughts and memories effect the state of the CNS. This hardwiring, along with experiences, are what determine what is perceived as a threat and how it needs to be responded to at the time. Being conscious of how our bodies feel, and consciously navigating our emotional response to perceived vs real threats, pain or injury we can help reduce the signals our CNS receives, and positively influence the perception of pain.
Our Central Nervous System (brain and spinal cord) is wired to receive and provide information in the body.
The Sympathetic branch of the Nervous system is responsible for the Stress response which we can see as Fight, Freeze, or Flight.
The Parasympathetic branch is responsible for relaxation - in other words, rest and digest.
What is Mindfulness?
It's the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something; a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations and is typically used as a therapeutic or meditative technique.
Mindfulness is a skill that requires practice, and is an effective way to reduce the negative aspects stress places upon our minds and bodies. Since pain is a subjective, multi-sensory experience that is a part of our emotional and physical reality, how we respond to it will influence how we experience it. Becoming mindful of our reactions and thoughts can help us become less reactive to both the internal and external stresses we experience on a daily basis.
What we resist Persists. Mindfulness helps put us back in the drivers seat so that we are no longer victims of circumstance.
I have found in my 20+ years of therapeutic experience that those who can slip into a non-reactive state, regardless of the source of pain, cope and recover more easily than those who continue to react in frustration or anger. I believe that this ability creates a sense of control, confidence and reassurance to move through a difficult time, and in turn, they are less depressed, angry, and anxious. This also helps them return to or start healthy lifestyles and activities that reinforce these positive experiences and states of being.
This is why I see my practice as working with my clients as a dynamic and active process of integrating mind, body and spirit. My goal is to help remove obstacles that interfere with optimal physical, mental and emotional functioning, as well as enhance and encourage the mind and body to return to and rest in the parasympathetic state. Helping clients let go of any reliance upon pain medication and transform any beliefs about themselves that contribute to the body releasing the fight or flight mode is a joy.
Our current lifestyles tend to create an environment for us to stay in a Sympathetic state, and it is up to each of us to manage this within ourselves for our own health and well-being.
As humans, we generally avoid that which we find uncomfortable or disagreeable. It is also a normal part of the stress response, but by embracing and leaning into that which we may naturally be inclined to avoid, we can help change the subjective experience of pain and discomfort. "That which we resist persists" is a famous psychological adage, but it is also true for the physical and how both the physical and emotional intertwine. Being mindful of when any form of pain, be it emotional, physical, or some combination of the two, requires support from a therapist is also useful because not everything can be managed on one's own.
When used regularly along with exercise, good diet, lifestyle, and appropriate medical and therapeutic support, Mindfulness becomes a tool to navigate the inevitable ups and downs in life that bring or cause pain. Below is a simple mindfulness exercise that you can use to reduce the emotional burden of musculoskeletal and other pain. There are many other mindfulness exercises and mediations available on the internet!
Remember, the goal of mindfulness is not to change anything, the intent of which can actually create more stress; instead it is about acceptance and non-reactivity. Cultivating patience, non-judgement, trust, acceptance and non-reactivity are at the core of Mindfulness. As with anything, ease comes with practice.
A Simple Exercise to Practice Mindfulness:
Find a comfortable place to sit on a chair or on the floor. Find a comfortable, relaxed and neutral posture with your back straight so that you are neither slumping nor feeling rigid and tight.
Begin by bringing your awareness to the room you are in, letting go of whatever occurred prior to sitting, and any thoughts of what you must do after you finish. Allow a softening of your gaze so that your awareness becomes more internal than external; take 5-6 gentle deep belly breathes and then gently closing your eyes.
Concentrate your attention completely on your breathing. Become aware of the sensations of air as it passes over your nostrils when you inhale and exhale without changing your breathing. Just observe the sensation of the air flow and let it happen naturally.
Now gently transfer your focus to your body. Gently scan down from head to toe, noticing any areas of tension or effort. As you do this, notice the contact between your body and surfaces you’re in contact with. Simply marvel at the quality and precision of any sensations that you notice in your body without judgement, opinion or analysis. Just allow yourself time to be aware of your body before slowly returning to gently focus on the breath.
Thoughts will inevitably come into your mind and that’s perfectly fine. Let them be like observing clouds in a sky that come and go. As easily as the thoughts come into your mind, allow them to drift off. Notice if your mind becomes focused on a thought, and gently return to observation. It is normal for this to happen, so be kind and gentle to yourself when you notice this and gently return your focus to your breathing. Treat each thought as a guest. When a thought or feeling arises, simply observe and acknowledge it. There is no need to interpret it or to use it. You might wonder where it came from, what caused it to surface now, what purpose it serves. If you feel yourself drifting away on a thought then gently return to your breathing. Your breath is an anchor to bring you back when your mind wanders off with thoughts.
Notice repetitive thoughts. As you progress you will come to recognize that the same thoughts appear over and over again. Let them pass by, returning your attention to your breath.
Practice being present as long as you can, starting with 5 mins. With more practice you will be able to increase the duration.
When finished your sitting meditation, bring your attention back to your body and gently stretch before standing up and taking the good energy and intentions with you throughout your day.
The next goal is for the sitting meditation to become an all day state of being. This is what Mindfulness is and the ultimate goal of mediation itself so that when you get off the cushion, you are and become what you practice.