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.
We’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?
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: firstname.lastname@example.org or 614-385-3455.
For further reading, check out these links:
Now, it’s your turn: Do you use mindfulness to help manage your pain and other symptoms? Share your experience in the comments section!