How to Use Mindfulness to Manage Pain
Pain is something every person will be faced with at some point. Mindfulness can help you approach pain in a healthy way. Acute pain is a sharp pain lasting for a short time, sometimes defined as less than 12 weeks. Medicine is quite good at treating acute pain. Chronic pain is pain that lasts for over 12 weeks, and doctors have a much harder time treating such a condition.
Many consider chronic pain as one of the most underestimated health-care problems in the world today, having a massive effect on both the patient and being a major burden on the health-care system.
The World Health Organization found that between a half and two-thirds of people with chronic pain struggle to exercise, enjoy normal sleep, perform household chores, attend social activities, drive a car, walk or have sexual relations.
It has repeatedly been found that those who complete an eight-week mindfulness program find their level of pain reduced. This is surprising because mindfulness asks you to go into the place that hurts and allow the sensation to be there, rather than to fight with the pain itself.
Know the difference between pain and suffering with mindfulness
Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Pain is a sensation that you’re bound to experience from time to time. In fact, pain is often a very useful sensation – without pain, you’d go round damaging yourself without realizing it.
Suffering is different. Suffering is something you create yourself, often unknowingly. Say you suffer from arthritis. Each morning, when you wake up, you experience the raw sensation – the pain of having arthritis. Then, within a second or so, your mind begins to interpret the experience: ‘That stupid disease. Why me? I bet I got it because of the unhealthy food I used to eat. It’s not fair. I’m so annoyed!’
Pain can be emotional. Suffering is the way you meet those emotions. If you’re curious about them, and almost welcome them rather than trying to push them away, fight or block them, you’re unlikely to create much suffering. However, if you avoid the emotions through addictions, like drugs or excessive alcohol use, to avoid these feelings, you’re likely to increase your own suffering.
All the avoidant strategies can’t make the pain go away, they just numb it for the time being. This can be helpful in the short term to help you to cope, but by avoiding the painful sensations or emotions, you sustain and feed them. The very act of turning towards painful experiences begins to change the level of suffering you have.
Use mindfulness to cope with pain
Here are a few things to remember about pain when applying mindfulness to the condition:
Pain can only exist in the present moment. You only need to cope with this moment now. By worrying about the rest of the day, week, month or year you begin to create suffering for yourself.
Tension increases pain. By becoming aware of the sensation of pain and imaging the breath going into and out of the area of pain, the tension naturally begins to release, thereby reducing the pain. However, if the tension stays, that’s okay too – your intention is all you can control here. Become aware of the actual sensation of the pain itself. Notice where the pain is located in the body.
Trying hard to reduce pain doesn’t really work, just like trying to relax can create more tension. By discovering how slowly but surely to acknowledge and accept your pain, your experience may change for the better.
Here’s a meditation you can try to help you through your pain:
Adopt any position that you feel comfortable in for a few minutes.
Feel the sensation of your own breathing.
Be aware of your breath with a lightness, a kindness and a sense of gratitude as far as you can.
Notice how the pain grabs your attention time and again.
Try not to criticize yourself for this. Understand that this is a difficult practice and guide your awareness gently back to the feeling of the in-breath and out-breath around the nose, chest, belly or wherever else you find it most easy to focus on. Continue for a few minutes.
Now bring your attention to the sensation of the pain itself.
This may feel frightening, or you may be very reluctant to try moving your attention to the pain. However, if you’ve never done this before, why not give it a go? Imagine your breath going into and out of the center of the pain, or however close you can comfortably move to the pain.
You may find saying the following words to yourself helpful, as you breathe in and out.
You may want to make a nice, slow recording of it – perhaps with music in the background if you like – and play the recording back to yourself.
‘Breathing in, I am aware I am breathing in,
Breathing out, I am aware I am breathing out.
Breathing in, I am aware of pain,
Breathing out, I am aware of pain.
Breathing in, I am aware of pain,
Breathing out, I know I am not my pain.
Breathing in, I am aware of tension,
Breathing out, I know I am not my tension.
Breathing in, I am aware of anger,
Breathing out, I know I am not my anger.
Breathing in, I am aware of sadness,
Breathing out, I know I am not my sadness.
Breathing in, I am aware of anxiety,
Breathing out, I know I am not my anxiety.
Breathing in, I take things moment by moment,
Breathing out, this is the only moment.
Breathing in, I know I am awareness,
Breathing out, I know I am free.’
You can change the wording to whatever you feel comfortable with. Feel free to experiment. Practice at least once a day and note its effect.