When we’re in pain, we want it to go away. Immediately. And that’s understandable. Chronic pain is frustrating and debilitating, said Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and Psych Central blogger. The last thing we want to do is pay more attention to our pain. But that’s the premise behind mindfulness, a highly effective practice for chronic pain (among other concerns).
Goldstein describes mindfulness as “paying attention to something on purpose and with fresh eyes.” This is why mindfulness is so helpful. Instead of focusing on how badly we want the pain to stop, we pay attention to our pain with curiosity and without judgment.
This approach is very different from what our brains naturally do when we experience the physiological sensation of pain. Our minds typically launch into a litany of judgments and negative thoughts. According to Goldstein, we start ruminating about how much we hate the pain and want to wish it away. “We judge the pain, and that only makes it worse.” In fact, our negative thoughts and judgments not only exacerbate the pain, they also fuel anxiety and depression, he said.
What also makes matters worse is that our minds start brainstorming ways to soothe the pain. Goldstein likens this to the Roomba, a robot vacuum. If you trap the Roomba, it just keeps bouncing off the edges. Our brains do the same with scouring for solutions. This “creates a lot of frustration, stress and feeling trapped.”
Mindfulness teaches people with chronic pain to be curious about the intensity of their pain, instead of letting their minds jump into thoughts like “This is awful,” said Goldstein, also author of The Now Effect: How This Moment Can Change The Rest of Your Life and co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook.
It also teaches individuals to let go of goals and expectations. When you expect something will ease your pain, and it doesn’t or not as much as you’d like, your mind goes into alarm- or solution-mode, he said. You start thinking thoughts like “nothing ever works.”
“What we want to do as best as we can is to engage with the pain just as it is.” It’s not about achieving a certain goal – like minimizing pain – but learning to relate to your pain differently, he said.
Goldstein called it a learning mindset, as opposed to an achievement-oriented mindset. In other words, as you’re applying mindfulness to your pain, you might consider your experience, and ask yourself: “What can I learn about this pain? What do I notice?”
As Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D, writes in the introduction of The Mindfulness Solution to Pain, “From the perspective of mindfulness, nothing needs fixing. Nothing needs to be forced to stop, or change, or go away.”
Kabat-Zinn actually founded an effective program called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) in 1979. While today it helps individuals with all sorts of concerns, such as stress, sleep problems, anxiety and high blood pressure, it was originally created to help chronic pain patients.
“In MBSR, we emphasize that awareness and thinking are very different capacities. Both, of course, are extremely potent and valuable, but from the perspective of mindfulness, it is awareness that is healing, rather than mere thinking…Also, it is only awareness itself that can balance out all of our various inflammations of thought and the emotional agitations and distortions that accompany the frequent storms that blow through the mind, especially in the face of a chronic pain condition,” Kabat-Zinn writes in the book.
Mindfulness provides a more accurate perception of pain, according to Goldstein. For instance, you might think that you’re in pain all day. But bringing awareness to your pain might reveal that it actually peaks, valleys and completely subsides. One of Goldstein’s clients believed that his pain was constant throughout the day. But when he examined his pain, he realized it hits him about six times a day. This helped to lift his frustration and anxiety.
If you’re struggling with chronic pain, Goldstein suggested these mindfulness-based strategies. He also stressed the importance of paying attention to what works for you and what doesn’t.
A body scan, which also is included in MBSR, involves bringing awareness to each body part. “You’re bringing attention to what the brain wants to move away from,” Goldstein said. However, instead of immediately reacting to your pain, the body scan teaches “your brain the experience that it can actually be with what’s there.”
You’ll find helpful videos with a three-, five- and 10-minute body scan on Goldstein’s website.
When “pain arises, the brain reacts automatically,” with thoughts, such as “I hate this, what am I going to do?” Goldstein said. Though you can’t stop these first few negative thoughts, you can calm your mind and “ground your breath.”
Goldstein suggested simply breathing in slowly and saying to yourself “In,” and breathing out slowly and saying “Out.” Then you also might ask yourself, “What’s most important for me to pay attention to now?”
A distraction can be a helpful tool when your pain is high (such as anything above an 8 on a 10-point scale), Goldstein said. The key is to pick a healthy distraction. For instance, it could be anything from playing a game on your iPad to focusing on a conversation with a friend to getting lost in a book, he said.
Mindfulness is an effective practice for approaching chronic pain. It teaches individuals to observe their pain, and be curious about it. And, while counterintuitive, it’s this very act of paying attention that can help your pain.