Using Mindfulness to Approach Chronic Pain
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?”