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Millions of people deal with chronic pain and other distress on a daily basis. Acute pain is an important reaction. It alerts us to harm and drives us to move away from danger. But when the brain is chronically activated to experience pain, it can become difficult to calm down and can lead to additional emotional, mental, and physical suffering.
Pain vs. Suffering
While we typically equate pain with suffering, there is more to the experience. Suffering is pain combined with worry and mental engagement. Pain is unpleasant, but we don't necessarily have to react against it or engage in suffering because of it.
In essence, pain is a combination of the physical sensations we feel, the emotions we feel, and the meaning the pain has for us.
So much of our experience, with chronic pain and life in general, depends on our perspective. According to this concept, suffering is optional; it comes from the layers of worry and emotions that often come with painful experiences. Emotional and mental tension can add to physical pain and contribute to suffering.
Mindfulness Eases Chronic Pain
Mindfulness is one way you can reduce suffering and cope with pain. Studies show that people who deal with systemic pain and practice mindfulness rate their quality of life, happiness, satisfaction, and activity level as improved after mindfulness training, even though the objective physical pain has not changed.
A regular meditation practice, a meaningful stress management approach, and a mindful attitude can build a foundation for working with pain, physical suffering, and psychological distress of many kinds.
Mindfulness helps you begin to separate the physical sensation of pain from the emotions you feel about it. The awareness that comes when you recognize, describe, and label a sensation can help you separate from becoming entwined with the pain. Ruminating and obsessing about the pain and suffering, and what that means to you, creates frustration, negative thoughts, judgment, and a feeling of being trapped.
Awareness helps you shift from trying to avoid or eradicate pain toward choosing how you relate to distress. This shift in mindset allows you to change your view of discomfort from something that is outside of you, imposed upon you, or happening to you to something that you can choose how to relate to and approach. Changing your perspective helps you more in control. It also teaches you to release expectations and step out of alarm and reaction mode.
Often, much of the suffering you experience with pain is augmented by the stories you tell yourself about what it means, what happened in the past, and what will happen in the future. You can get stuck in the past, fixating on how the pain came to be, or obsess about the future and what the situation will bring. Mindfulness helps bring you back into the present moment.
2 Mindful Approaches to Cope with Chronic Pain
A healing approach to chronic pain is empowering and educating rather than searching for someone or something to provide a quick fix. The following mindfulness techniques will help you learn how to heal yourself and cope with life in a healthier way.
1. Conduct a body scan. This mindfulness technique involves bringing awareness to each body part. As you start purposely paying attention, you teach your brain that it is OK to be with what is there. It raises your awareness of what is.
To experience a simple body scan, follow these steps:
- Get as comfortable as possible and close your eyes.
- Take a few deep breaths and bring your awareness to the sensation of your breath moving in and out of your body. Notice the movements your body makes as the breath flows in and out.
- Next, bring your attention to an area of your body that is free of pain. Examine the pleasant, relaxed, or neutral feeling you find there. Allow your attention to stay with this area for a few moments and then relax that area completely.
- Next, bring your attention to an area of pain or discomfort. What do you notice there? What is the pain like—sharp, burning, stabbing, clenching? What is your experience in this area from moment to moment? Become a curious observer of your bodily sensations and also notice your attitude and thoughts toward them without judgment.
- Breathe into any discomfort and allow yourself to let go of it and relax.
- When you are ready, return your attention to your whole body and the sensation of the breath. Feel yourself fully present and aware in this moment.
This practice allows your body and brain to let go of tension, stress, and obsession with suffering. As muscles relax, the nerve impulses traveling to and from them decrease, allowing the brain to calm down. This process shifts the entire nervous system toward relaxation, helping both the body and mind release attachment to suffering.
2. Practice mindful breathing. The breath is a beautiful tool that is free and always with you, requires no equipment, and can be used simply to improve your health. Regularly practicing mindful breathing can be both calming and energizing. You can control your breath and use it to reduce stress, change your relationship with pain, and achieve a relaxed state.
The breath is a valuable tool for bringing you back into the present moment and grounding you. Simply slowing down the breath and beginning to pay attention to its movement in and out gives the brain a chance to break free from the automatic thoughts and judgments that it jumps to when you get caught up in pain and suffering. For example:
"I hate this!"
"What am I going to do?"
"This is terrible."
"I will never be able to do X."
You can stop these negative thoughts that come flooding into the brain by calming the mind and grounding into the breath. This gives you the chance to allow your experience to be and stop identifying with and getting trapped in the pain experience. Try this alternate nostril breathing practice to get you started.
Begin with these techniques to shift your approach to pain and break free from suffering!
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