Chronic pain affects 100 million adults in the United States. That’s more than diabetes, heart disease, and cancer combined.
As a result, we spend many hours and dollars visiting doctors seeking relief. But, in recent years, a simple remedy based on an ancient practice has proven effective in managing pain.
You’ve probably heard of mindful meditation. It’s practiced in the workplace, classrooms, and in the locker rooms of professional sports teams. And it’s popular for a good reason. Mindfulness meditation, often shortened to mindfulness, has many benefits, including pain management, stress reduction, and improving sleep.
The science behind mindfulness meditation
Numerous studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of practicing mindfulness in reducing our experience of pain. Since meditation changes the way the mind perceives pain, the pain becomes more bearable.
Meditation also changes the brain itself. Studies using brain imaging tests like MRIs have demonstrated that mindfulness meditation activates parts of the brain associated with pain control. As a result, medical professionals are now beginning to promote meditation as a substitute for opioids.
Mindfulness meditation also impacts the brain in other ways. A UCLA study determined that meditation actually preserves the brain as it ages. Additionally, a seminal study at Harvard showed that meditation changes the structure of the part of the brain that governs emotion. As a result, subjects reported a decrease in their experience of fear, stress, and anxiety.
How to include mindfulness in your life
Mindfulness is easy to practice. At its simplest, mindfulness means paying attention without judgment or expectation. And meditation is just one form of mindfulness.
Mindfulness practices can range from spending 15 minutes a day sitting down and focusing on your breathing, to concentrating on the taste and texture of each bite of food. By focusing your mind in this way, your attention shifts from a feeling of helplessness around the pain (“This really hurts and there’s nothing I can do about it”), to having a sense of control of how you experience the pain (“Yes this is happening, but I can choose how I relate to the pain”).
Mindfulness does not necessarily take the pain away. Instead, it teaches us how to better cope with the pain.
Two easy mindfulness meditation exercises
Here are two easy mindfulness exercises you can try. For the greatest benefit, consider taking a class or buying a mindfulness app or book. (Note that classes are often offered by health plans and hospitals.)
- Pay attention to your body. Instead of trying to forget your pain and physical sensations, relax into them. Close your eyes and scan your body, starting at the top of your head. When your focus reaches an area in pain, just notice the pain without judgment or thought.
- Focus on your breathing. Sit in a quiet place with your back straight yet relaxed. Feel your breath move in and out of your body. Let your awareness of everything else fall away.
Notice the way your abdomen expands and collapses with each breath. When your mind wanders, gently redirect your attention to your breath. Don’t judge yourself. Remember that you’re not trying to achieve anything or become a “good meditator.” You’re simply becoming aware of what’s happening around you.
Other uses for mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness meditation has many applications beyond helping with pain relief and stress reduction. Many use it for managing the symptoms of depression or anxiety, too.
Mindfulness can also help with coping with the emotional reaction to a difficult diagnosis. As a result, it is often used as part of cancer treatment plans. It may also help with the physical side effects of chemotherapy or the disease itself. Additionally, it may assuage the stress, depression, and feeling of uncertainty that often accompanies a cancer diagnosis.
Finally, practicing mindfulness may help people with cancer reduce their worrying about the disease and help them focus on all the positive and meaningful aspects of their lives.
Please note that, even if practicing mindfulness brings relief to your pain, it does not replace medical treatment. Talk to your doctor about mindfulness meditation and how it can be used to complement your treatment plan.