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Are you one of the approximately 126 million Americans experiencing pain? Medications are one of the most common strategies to help reduce pain; however, they come with many side effects. Many people are turning to alternative therapies for pain management, including therapies that tap into the power of the mind.
The mind can have a strong effect on how we experience pain. Doctors Lorimer Mosely and David Butler believe that pain, in fact, might not always serve as an indication of tissue damage or disease—it may sometimes simply exist as a perception in the mind that the tissue is in danger and needs to be protected, particularly if the pain persists for a long period of time. In addition, certain mental experiences—such as anxiety, expectations, social context, and attention—may strongly influence pain levels.
This does not mean pain is meaningless. It can be a helpful warning signal that should be explored with a medical professional to determine the underlying cause and subsequent treatment plan. But it does mean that pain is malleable and can potentially be reduced by altering your state of mind.
Here are three mind-body therapies that can help you tap into the power of your mind to help manage pain.
1. Clinical Hypnosis
Many people think that being hypnotized will cause them to lose control and be dominated by the hypnotist. This assumption is often based on what happens during hypnosis stage acts, when people volunteer to be hypnotized and follow whatever order is given by the hypnotist. This is not an accurate portrayal of hypnosis. Hypnotists merely help facilitate a journey into a person’s subconscious mind and leverage the power of suggestion to rewire perceptions and thought patterns. The person being hypnotized journeys into the subconscious mind by choice.
Clinical hypnosis is a form of hypnosis that focuses on the mind-body connection to support healing. It is gaining traction in the medical community as a valid alternative therapy to help treat various conditions—including pain. A variety of studies have shown that hypnosis can be effective in managing chronic pain associated with a variety of conditions, including:
- Back pain
- Temporomandibular Joint Disorders, or TMJ
- Sickle cell disease
To find a qualified clinical hypnotist (sometimes called hypnotherapist), visit the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis or the National Board for Certified Clinical Hypnotherapists. There are also books and audios available to teach self-hypnosis.
2. Mindfulness Meditation
Meditation has been used for centuries to discipline the mind and heighten awareness and relaxation. This practice can be an invaluable tool in pain management: Meditation can strip the anxieties and expectations away from your experience of pain to allow you to experience the sensation of pain with no judgement. This can be very powerful: In one study, after receiving mindfulness meditation training for four days and then experiencing painful stimuli, participants experienced a reduction in pain unpleasantness by 57 percent and pain intensity by 40 percent.
There are many resources available to develop skills in mindfulness meditation. The University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Center for Mindfulness provides various educational programs and information on mindfulness. The UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center offers free guided meditations online. There are also many apps, books, and YouTube videos that can provide guidance with meditation.
Biofeedback can teach your mind to control body functions that typically happen involuntarily, such as heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension. During a biofeedback session, electrodes are attached to your skin, and a biofeedback therapist helps you learn how to change the targeted body function while the electrodes monitor the changes. Eventually you learn how to achieve the same results without feedback from the electrodes. Research has shown that biofeedback can be helpful in reducing the following types of pain:
- Low back pain
- Chronic migraines
- Musculoskeletal pain
- Other pain conditions
According to the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, Inc. (AAPB), most states do not restrict who can provide biofeedback—so if you want to explore biofeedback, be sure to do your research and find someone who is qualified. The AAPB provides a practitioner directory, and you can find a list of certified practitioners through the Biofeedback Certification International Alliance.
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*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.