Life is a rollercoaster and we all go through times in life that are difficult. Sometimes that can be a period of chronic or severe pain. This article will discuss meditation and how it might help people suffering from ongoing debilitating pain, and it will also be helpful for those who are interested in meditation for mild to moderate pain as well as mental and emotional well-being.
The first thing to note about pain is that it is very subjective, meaning that only the person experiencing the pain is aware of its intensity, and the same amount of injury or trauma can feel very different from one person to another. Pain is not black and white, because it does not just consist of the actual sensations a person is having, but also how they react to the pain emotionally, mentally and physically.
When you are undergoing treatment at Spinal Symmetry, you may go through a painful episode. This is your body working through an unwinding process, which are dynamic changes in your skeletal framework when your body is responding to the treatment and Dynamic Therapy. Depending on the chronicity and depth of the compensations and traumas of the body, the unwinding timeframe can be anything from quick and easy, to possibly long lasting and deep. In these cases, while your body heals, you can experience aches and pains. This can especially happen when joints that were restricted and not moving well suddenly start moving again. What we want to achieve during this episode is change, and that can mean relief in pain, but also change in character or location of the pain, or improvement in mobility. During this phase it can be very useful to explore ways to deal with pain, that focuses on the mental and emotional aspects of it.
A common technique people in pain tend to use is focusing their attention outwards, trying to take their mind off their pain by distracting themselves. This is a normal response to chronic and intermittent pain, but it is rarely effective. This is because when the nervous system senses pain, it wants to make you aware of it by sending it to your brain, allowing your conscious mind to realise that there is damage, or risk of damage, to your tissue. This allows you to react in ways that can optimise healing and minimise risk of further injury. When you ignore these messages from your brain, it is simply just going to turn up the volume of the pain.
The way we perceive pain does not actually happen at the site of pain, but in the brain. By no means does that mean chronic pain is not real, in fact it is very real and can be debilitating, even after tissue injury has healed. When the brain gets the message that there is pain somewhere, the first thing it does is zoom in on that pain to assess the situation – “am I in immediate danger?”, “do I need to stop doing what I’m doing?”. This zooming in, amplifies the pain. Sometimes only for a few seconds or minutes, but sometimes once the brain has turned up the volume of your pain, and doesn’t turn it back down. This is usually how chronic pain starts, and brain scan studies have shown that the brain physically changes in chronic pain, where there is more brain tissue and activity dedicated to pain sensation. The pain centres in your brain can actually grow in size!
This is where meditation comes in. Perhaps you’re thinking it’s a little airy fairy? Actually it’s not. Several studies have measured people’s pain intensity, as well as their pain-related emotional and physical behaviour, before and after learning meditation techniques. There are three common types of meditation which have been shown to help with chronic pain. These are focused attention, open mindfulness, and muscle relaxation. Open mindfulness has been shown to be by far the most effective of the three, although as you learn meditation, it is easier to begin with focused attention, which is the second most effective.
Primary and secondary pain
So how does meditation help pain, when it makes no physical changes where the pain is? To make a complicated thing simple, we can split pain into two parts, primary and secondary pain. Primary pain is the message your pain sensitive nerve endings in the tissues send to your brain. Much of these pain signals are actually silenced before they get to the somatosensory cortex of the brain (your consciousness), but if the signals are many enough and intense enough, they will pass through the gates and make their way to your conscious mind.
This lets you know that something is painful- so it will be time to react. Secondary pain is what your brain does with the information, meaning your reaction to the pain. It might make sense to move your hand away from the painful stimulus or to rub your sore calf to ease the pain. Some people might have strong emotional reactions which can include fear or aggression. This is your fight or flight response kicking in, a primal instinct.
For many people it is secondary pain that is the most exhausting and difficult type to deal with, as secondary pain is by far more active than primary pain when it becomes chronic. In acute pain it is a healthy response to act to protect it, but as chronicity sets in, the tissue damage is often no longer significant. Yet, your brain can’t seem to stop reacting, which puts a strain on your emotional, mental and social well-being. It makes sense at this stage that people suffering this way try their best to ignore it.
But there is a reason your brain is screaming at you this way – it needs you to acknowledge the pain! Open mindfulness meditation can help you with this, as its focus is to accept what is happening in your body and in your mind, without resistance or judgement. This means finding the sensations in your body, maybe lingering with your mind at what is painful, but in a way that you are acknowledging and accepting its presence. The same goes for your thoughts and your feelings. To acknowledge and accept the sensations of possibly being exhausted, scared or depressed without judging or censoring them.
Meditation has actually been shown to make physical changes in the brain, by reducing the activity in the pain areas, and increasing activity in the emotion and behaviour regulating areas, meaning you feel less pain to begin with, while being better equipped to deal with the pain. This makes you feel more in control, which helps diminish anxiety and exhaustion related to chronic pain.
This can be difficult to do all at once, so starting with focused attention meditation can be helpful for beginners, and as you get a better grasp of that you can transition to open mindfulness meditation. The examples of processes are detailed below, but first we will go through some basic steps that apply to both of them.
How to meditate
Set aside some time: You don’t need any fancy equipment, you just need time and space.
Be kind to yourself: it takes practice. Give yourself time to get used to meditating. This is a journey, and not something you should expect yourself to “do well”. It is not done well or badly, it is just done.
Start with short sessions. You learn a lot about yourself when you meditate. Longer sessions can be a little too awakening for some beginners. It is also safer to start with short practices, as some people with emotional trauma or mental illness can experience strong emotions. There is absolutely no rush.
Observe: pay attention to the present moment, without judgement. When you have a sensation, a thought or a judgement, notice it, acknowledge it and let it pass. Be in the now, and don’t dwell on the past or future.
It is normal for your mind to wander. Don’t get frustrated when this happen. Just smile, and bring your mind back to the present moment. This can happen multiple times during a single practice.
Focused attention meditation (1)
Focused attention meditation can be an effective practice to help cope with pain, especially chronic pain. While it is not as effective as open mindfulness meditation, it is easier to learn and a good starting point for beginners. Below is a step by step process you can follow for focused attention.
Choose a target for your focus. Focus on a scent, your favourite picture, or the sound of the wind. You can also focus on a mantra.
Get into a comfortable position and relax your body, feeling your weight resting against a chair, bed or floor.
Turn your attention to your chosen target and take in the sensation it provides. Focus on the sound, smell, sight, etc. and simply experience what it has to offer. The idea is not to think about it, but simply to experience it, being fully present in the moment.
Calm your inner voice. If your internal voice starts to analyse your target or begins to rehash stressful situations of the day, worry about the future, make a list for grocery shopping, or anything else, gently turn your attention back to your chosen target and the sensation it provides. Let your mind stay quiet and clear.
Don’t worry about ‘failure.’ If you find your mind engaging you and realise that you’re not being fully present with the sensations of your chosen target, don’t let your inner perfectionist beat you up for ‘doing it wrong.’ Simply congratulate yourself for noticing and return back to the present moment and the sensations it has to offer
Open mindfulness meditation (2)
Mindfulness meditation is a great way to separate yourself from your reactions to pain. Bring your focus to your breath, and from there you can bring it inwards to feeling the sensations of your whole body and mind. Do not criticize or try to change your breath, just notice and observe it. Is it shallow or deep? Smooth or ragged? The breath is a continuous process in your body, which is why it is a great way to stay connected to the present moment.
Sit comfortably, on a chair, bed or floor. Sit up straight but don’t stiffen up. Allow your natural spinal curves to be there. Let your hands rest on your legs.
You can close your eyes or keep them open. Let your chin drop slightly, directing the gaze downwards.
Feel your breath. The air moving through your nose or mouth, the rising and falling of your chest and belly
When your mind wanders, smile to yourself and bring your focus back to the breath
Do a full body scan. Starting from the top of your head to the tips of your toes. Focus on the sensations of your body and notice where something feels a little stiff or sore. Let your mind linger, acknowledging the sensations of pain without judgement. This body scan should be slow and focused, taking at least two minutes.
Bring your attention back to the breath
When you are ready, lift your gaze. As you finish up your practice, notice the sounds around you, directing your focus back out of your body. Notice your thoughts, emotions and physical sensations.
Other tools you can use for meditation
It can be difficult at first to get used to meditation. If you feel that you need some extra help to get going, there are some tools you can use. There are apps you can download that include audio tracks where you are guided through a meditation practices. Many of these apps also allow you to choose the type of meditation and the purpose of your practice. You can also attend guided meditation classes.
Now that you have another tool in your belt for pain management, start practicing meditation daily and observe how it affects your pain and your mood. A short session every morning is a great way to start the day, or perhaps at night when you’re in bed using your dynamic therapy strap you can practice mindfulness while your body is physically unwinding. You can also incorporate mindfulness into your daily life without doing a full meditation practice, where you just stop and observe a moment as it is, accepting what is happening around you and in your body, without judgement or frustration. As your brain starts to let go and turn down the volume of your pain, while your body physically changes and heals, it is possible to start returning to a more normal and less pain-focused life.