How mindfulness can ease your chronic pain

A guest post by Jared Levenson, No Effort Big Change

You’ve heard of mindfulness, right? The topic been on the front covers of numerous magazines, including Time.

How mindfulness can ease your chronic pain | Fed Up with FatigueWe’re going to be talking about mindfulness today. We’re going to get into “how” mindfulness can reduce your pain. But first, let’s talk about mindfulness and its link to pain. The definition of mindfulness is basically being present, feeling and not judging. You might be wondering, “How can just feeling my pain be in any way beneficial towards reducing my pain?”

Let’s dive in. In addition to being featured in Time, mindfulness has also been the topic of over 1,000+ research articles. The University of California Los Angeles has an entire center devoted to mindfulness research. How can UCLA and many other institutions justify spending millions of millions of dollars per year investigating mindfulness?

Jared Levenson

Jared Levenson

The short answer is mindfulness positively affects every area of life. That makes mindfulness a great thing to research! Given our healthcare crisis, anything that is free, universally accessible and effectively enables positive outcomes is a researcher’s dream come true. I’ve read a bunch of this research because I’ve studied mindfulness for years now, ever since I decided to forgo college graduation and become a monk instead.

Quick backstory: I got into mindfulness because I was depressed and hated my college major. I got into mindfulness because I was lonely as hell and hadn’t kissed a girl in years. I got into mindfulness because nothing else was working. This sparked an epic self-healing journey and ended up with me being a wellness coach, yoga teacher and currently in the process of getting my master’s in counseling. Through this transformation I’ve read tons of articles about mindfulness. Most importantly, I’ve practiced mindfulness in numerous retreats and have spent thousands of hours meditating, doing yoga and teaching yoga.

I’m a reader too, so I like reading books on the science of mindfulness. After reading a ton about mindfulness, practicing it and studying it, here is what I conclude: Mindfulness is MOST effective for pain management. That’s a bold statement. Remember, mindfulness positively affects every area of life. That’s why millions of dollars of research can be spent on learning the neuroscience of mindfulness. Yet out of all these areas of life, mindfulness works best for pain management.

Have you heard of Jon Kabat-Zinn? It’s okay if you haven’t. To keep a long story short, he’s the guy who made mindfulness popular in the West. Jon studied mindfulness with chronic pain patients in hospitals. Mindfulness was so effective in reducing pain scores that western science had to notice. Mindfulness was previously dismissed as something that hippies do and not worthy of scientific investigation, but evidence was evidence and so the mindfulness movement began.

So let’s dive in. How can mindfulness help you reduce pain?

We all know we need to relax more, but oftentimes we just aren’t sure how. It’s like one of my clients with rheumatoid arthritis. We’ll call him Jim. Jim is his 40s and is a construction worker. When I massage Jim’s shoulders in yoga class or help him relax in a private session, I can feel his shoulders are like solid rocks.

Jim doesn’t know how to relax effectively. Sure, Jim knows how to watch TV and exercise. Jim knows how to read, take hot showers and use heat/ice compresses during the day.

But before he started mindfulness practices, Jim didn’t know how he could relax his body. Jim could use tools – the television, hot/cold, comfy beds – to relax but Jim couldn’t relax himself. Jim had never been taught how to relax.

Here’s an equation I want you to memorize to understand mindfulness better. This equation isn’t totally accurate but it’s a good representation of how mindfulness can help you.

Pain x Resistance = Suffering

Most people don’t realize how much their resistance to pain causes additional suffering.

Take Jim, for example. Jim’s shoulders hurt really bad. This pain causes Jim to wince. When Jim winces, his shoulders shrug up to his ears. Because Jim has rheumatoid arthritis, Jim’s shoulders are up at his ears all day when he does construction.

As a yoga teacher, I know that having your shoulders up by your ears is really bad posture. Moreover, having bad posture is linked to energy and fatigue. Also, Jim has sort of a hunched over look because of his constant pain. I feel for the guy, but other people aren’t as empathetic. They see a hunched over dude. Hunched over is weird to them, so they pretend not to see Jim.

This hurts Jim, deeply. His shoulder pain has caused him bad posture, fatigue, disrespect and a whole lot of frustration. Even worse, the shoulder pain is out of his control.

This is where mindfulness comes in, with the resistance. Jim initially resists the pain because it doesn’t feel good. He wants to get rid of the pain so he lifts his shoulders up to his ears. It’s a natural reaction that leads to a huge negative spiral. But remember…

Pain x Resistance = Suffering

Mindfulness is about two things.

You “catch” the pain initially. This would be Jim feeling the pain in his shoulders, becoming vibrantly aware that his shoulders are hurting.

Then, you do something to reduce the pain. Instead of wincing, Jim would deep breathe or just practice noticing the sensations.

First, mindfulness is about awareness. We need to become aware of the pain so we can decide how we want to respond. Most people live in a state of unawareness, constantly thinking about work, relationships, to-do lists, etc. Then they can’t catch their automatic responses, like wincing.

This becoming aware part is actually pretty easy. However, becoming aware often means a temporary increase in pain. For example, when I started meditating I noticed I had depression. This was painful to admit and to feel. It would’ve been easier to keep smoking weed and locking myself in my room playing chess all day. That’s what I did in college before I studied as a monk.

Yet running away from our pain only starts a negative cycle, like Jim’s shoulders. Instead, with awareness, we feel the pain so we can choose a different pattern.

Of course, people with chronic pain are already aware they are in pain. So what can mindfulness do then? That’s where the second step comes in.

After awareness, we can choose our response. Part of mindfulness is giving you tools to cope with stress. These tools include diaphragmatic breathing and body scanning.

Diaphragmatic breathing is simple:

Put your hands on your belly.
When you inhale, feel your belly expand into your hands.
When you exhale, feel your belly suck closer to your spine.
Notice what happens when you start taking deeper, slower breaths. It’s naturally calming.

Body scanning is also simple:

Start by feeling your face.
Notice tension in your jaw.
Relax that tension.
Notice tension in your forehead.
Relax your forehead.
Keep repeating this process for neck, shoulders, chest, legs, and every other part of your body.

Belly breathing and body scanning are “how” you can relax yourself. Instead of relying on external sources of relaxation like television, drugs, or hot showers, you become able to give yourself stress reduction. This is powerful.

These tools are free and effective ways that you can take some control back into your life.

What normally happens to people who experience pain is they begin automatically thinking negative thoughts. “Why me?” “I am useless” “Life sucks” are common thought patterns. In these situations, people don’t know they can refocus their attention to deep breathing and body scanning.

Overall, I encourage you explore mindfulness. It’s a journey. There are many more techniques and mindsets behind developing a rich and deep relaxing practice. It’s a skill that you develop. This one blog article alone won’t do the trick, but hopefully my story encourages you to begin this practice on your own. More and more today we are seeing that drugs only go so far in reducing pain. Making lifestyle choices are just as important, if not more so. Mindfulness is free, accessible, convenient and can truly change your life.

Nowadays I blog about this stuff at NoEffortBigChange.com! Please reach out if you have questions: levensonjared@gmail.com or 614-385-3455.

For further reading, check out these links:

A Simpler Guide to Mindfulness for Beginners

All It Takes is 10 Mindful Minutes (YouTube video, 9 minutes)

Mindful Breathing

Now, it’s your turn: Do you use mindfulness to help manage your pain and other symptoms? Share your experience in the comments section! 


  1. Hi, I’m new to this blog, just found it yesterday on Pinterest. Boy, am I glad and thankful that i did. Thank you Donna for your wonderful blog. I’m finding so much information! I can’t put my phone down! It saddens me to read about so many readers experiencing similar things that i go through but it is nice to know that I’m not the only one and that there ARE others out there who understand what this is like. We can learn from each other and support each other.
    Thank you Jean Price for your comments. What a valuable advice I just learned from you. Thank you so much!

    • Donna Gregory/FedUpwithFatigue.com says

      Thank you so much for your kind words, Karen! My readers keep me going and that’s no exaggeration! I’m glad you’re finding the info on FedUpwithFatigue.com useful, and I hope it helps you along in your journey. I’m always here if you have questions or just need to connect w/ someone.

  2. For anyone who’s interested in practicing mindfulness who feels they need a bit of guidance, there’s an app called Calm which includes body scans and the breathing thing. There’s a free and a paid for version, both of which have a LOT to offer imho.

  3. Jean Price says

    I do an imaging technique…where I relax as much as I can, get in my best comfortable position, with my eyes closed…then I imagine in my “mind’s eye” where my pain is….and the shape and the color. Then I reach into by body and pull it out and hold it in front of me. And i bless it. …by just saying “I bless my pain.” Then I hand my pain off to the person who is always with me”when I image. (And this needs to be someone who has my best interest at heart too! For me this is Christ or God.). I then. ask Him to bless my pain..and after He does…I thank Him. Then before I open my eyes I ask if there is anything I should know. I wait a little bit and then open my eyes. It’s truly amazing!

    Imaging works without analyzing or without even thinking about it or talking about it! The things that just “appear” in your minds eye are often surprising…and beautiful, as far as what happens to the your pain in each step!! My pain “score” may not exactly plummeted…but my coping definitely soars!! Always! I was taught this technique by a nurse friend who developed a hospice program, and had learned it from a Native American minister she met at a convention once. He had used it to help his hospice patients with pain. My friend is also a minister and has a degree in addiction counseling. So her background was very unique and also the model she used in developing a grief and loss program for hospice was “task oriented” rather than about the stages of grief, and it was the most healing program I’ve ever seen…and used! Loss follows any change…and any change bring grief…so the changes of life with long term pain are major and continuing!

    I believe the most untouched area of pain treatment is providing help dealing with the changes and the many losses! We face! Until loss is affirmed…and people are given the tools to understand and process their grief…I think it’s very difficult to grow past all of the feelings of the huge losses pain brings! And that makes it more difficult to even relax…OR to find any joy in life….and also DIFFICULT to learn ways to reinvest in a life that now includes pain! Our families have losses too from OUR pain…so this can help iin our relationships too. I know I wouldn’t still be here, if it weren’t for this and for my faith. I’m pretty good…yet NOT good ENOUGH to have gone through all that I’ve gone through….and come out AHEAD!! And that’s the simple truth for me!!

    • I love your thoughts on pain. I do feel understood by only a couple of people and it is really helpful. However, I constantly worry about how others don’t understand my situation and may judge me. Thank you for your inspiring words.

      • Jean Price says

        Monsie…thank you so for saying this, your words have lifted my spirit today! I was really very fortunate to have a job where I learned so much and met some special people who ended up helping me with my “new life” with pain about a year later! My job was with a group of hospital services including adult day care, hospice, and a grief and loss program…all designed to keep patients in the community and in their safest, most comfortable place, which was home.

        It also included a program for seniors to help them reframe what independence meant as they aged…since we CAN still be independent even when we can’t fully function…as long as we can make our own care DECISIONS and decide what we want to do….within the boundaries of what’s realistic and possible for us. When my own ability to function was greatly decreased (from two back surgeries two weeks apart due to major complications, which left me with a lot of residual pain the doctor said would be a life long issue for me), I found myself needing to practice what I had learned and “preached” to others….if I wanted to just survive intact! I realized then that having pain and not being able to fully function was much like instantly aging!! All the changes pain brings…and the resulting losses and all our grief can bring us down even further, adding emotional pain and even MORE physical pain, too

        I felt so blessed to have the tools AND the support of those I met in that job to not only survive all of this through the years, but also to become more whole than I ever was!! It wasn’t easy, yet it was so worth it! I just wish I could give this information to all who have life-limiting pain. There’s so much of our self worth involved when we have persistent, daily pain. Like you’ve said, it’s hard when we don’t feel understood and we feel judged…especially now with the currrent climate about pain! Everyone needs validation and the affirmation that they are okay, and they are doing a good job….especially when we are up against something that’s not easily measured….even by ourselves!! Yet, to get this affirmation from others is often very difficult when they don’t understand. The good news is WE CAN learn to ASK CLEARLY for this when we need it. More importantly….we can learn to affirm ourselves, which is even better than having it come from others because we can have this at any time, plus it can helps us grow our self worth!

        Yet without some grief work, and working to understanding our own feelings…this is much HARDER to do!! Mostly because we are functioning less…and we all think, (AND we have been TAUGHT!), that our WORTH is tied up to HOW MUCH WE can DO…and NOT to who WE ARE as wonderful human beings! Human beings who ALSO STILL HAVE ALL the good qualities and good values we ever had…yet now we also have pain, which of course can boundariy our functioning…but NOT our uniqueness or our goodness! I think there is a reason we’re called human BEINGS…AND NOT human DOINGS…because at some point in our lives, we will ALL very likely face periods of being LESS able to DO!,

        Most hospices offer grief classes, for the public. And although death is the perhaps the most major loss people,think about, ANY CHANGE brings losses, so all the same principles will apply to any loss. I learned about grief using a wonderful model that was task-oriented…about the tasks we do to grieve, rather than the more famililar model that is about the stages of grief we go through. Yet any information about grief can help, in my opinion! I have to wonder if mindfulness is also tied up in part of grief work, just called by another name!

        Monsie, it really helps to have those couple of people who understand what you’re going through…and the support that says you’re doing a good job! When we grieve, it’s also helpful to have support and understanding, especially while we practice a new way of relating to ourselves and our world with pain…and to others, too! For me, when I learned to affirm myself, I was less concerned about what others thought, in the context of them judging me, and I could either hold up for myself in a non-aggressive way if it was a big issue for me….or I could just let the hurt of their judgement roll off me more easily, and “chock” it up to THIER issues…not mine!

        Change…and the losses we experience unfortunately also don’t just stop coming at some point! There are ripple losses and also new losses from the initial change. There are anniversary dates that may bring fresh grief, too. So we don’t really “get done” with our grieving from any change. We may have other layers come up to peel off at some point. It’s important to realize this is a NEW layer of our grief..and NOT just think we’ve done a POOR job or haven’t worked through something we already thought we HAD grieved and resolved before! One change can bring a loss that we spend a lifetime grieving…in different ways, at different times. Yet we can grow from each time we work on our grief to be able to understand our feelings even better.

        In a way, grief work is first learning about our feelings and ourselves! Then it’s about being able to affirm and validate ourselves, from realizing our feelings…our frustration, anger, depression, confusion, disbelief, fear, and a long list of other feelings are ALL just a VERY NORMAL PART of our loss…that we are not broken or deficient, but rather we HAVE HAD A LOSS, and we are merely grieving! If I put all of this about self-affirmation or self-validation in spiritual language…I’d say this is a big part of loving ourselves…so that we CAN then also love our “neighbors”! And it’s amazing how life with pain is actually easier and fuller when we are more generous to ourselves…and when we grieve our losses, so we can redefine and reinvest in ourselves and our world…and in others, too…and find joy despite our pain!!

        You can probably tell how very passionate I am about this (ha ha!!)!!! Because it has helped me so very much over 27+ years of pain and many struggles! I hope something I’ve said will also be a small help to you, too…and you’ll be able to have all that you need to feel really good about yourself, even when others don’t seem to understand! I bid you comfort and heart oeace, Monsie, and thanks again for your kind words!

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