When we experience pain, we want it to be over as soon as possible. So it might seem counterintuitive when a doctor recommends the practice of mindfulness — being fully present in the moment — to reduce pain levels.
How could being present help?
The answer is in changing the way your mind perceives pain, according to Debra Kahnen, BSN, RN, CMSRN, a mindfulness teacher and nursing supervisor at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas.
“When you practice mindfulness, it actually shrinks the amygdala, the fight-or-flight center of the brain, and increases the connections having to do with emotional regulation and self-awareness,” Kahnen said.
Learning to change your mind
According to Kahnen, mindfulness training can reduce the tendency to “awfulize,” or predict that pain will be worse than it actually is.
“Your mind may say, Oh my, it’s going to hurt as bad as it did before, and what if it gets worse?” she said. “Your fight-or-flight center can then respond by flooding your body with cortisol and other stress hormones, which cause inflammation and can aggravate the problem.”
Mindfulness helps you take a step back and observe the pain, as well as your thoughts and emotions about it, rather than allowing it to overwhelm you.
In a recently completed year-long study of mindfulness and chronic pain conducted at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas, most participants felt they were much more successful at managing their pain, Kahnen said.
The key mindfulness technique used in the study was the body scan, where participants focus on and consciously relax each part of their body.
Breathing meditation, also used, is where participants sit quietly and focus on the natural rhythm of the breath while letting thoughts float by like clouds in the sky.
“People need to find the practice that works best for them,” Kahnen said. “For example, you could sit outside with your eyes closed, listening to the wind and birds and feel the sun on your skin. You’re still present in the moment, but focusing externally rather than internally.”
The reward of mindfulness
Kahnen said it takes time and consistent practice to restructure the way your mind perceives pain.
“In our study, the turning point was at about six weeks,” she said. “That’s when your brain starts to change, and you begin to experience real improvement.”
The key skills developed with a mindfulness practice include being in the present moment without judgment and increased compassion for self and others.