For most people, pain is a temporary experience. For example, we might bang our elbow and feel a few seconds of sharp, jarring pain before it fades away.
However, for those who live with chronic pain, pain is a permanent part of their everyday lives.
Chronic pain is classified as a type of pain that persists longer than might be reasonably expected. It can be an extremely debilitating condition, affecting work productivity, sleeping patterns and relationships with loved ones.
Treatment for chronic pain typically involves therapy, exercise and medication, focusing mainly on managing and reducing the effects of the symptoms. However, another practice is showing promising results: mindfulness.
The scientific community is increasingly coming around to the potential of mindfulness in alleviating and, eventually, treating chronic pain when used as a component part of a wider treatment plan. Here, we’ll take a closer look at why.
Understanding chronic pain
Unlike acute pain, which disappears after what would be considered a normal healing time, chronic pain will persist for months or even years after the cause has been treated.
Chronic pain most commonly manifests in the period after structural damage (due to an injury, tissue damage or disease) has cleared up.
In a normal pain response, signals travel to our brain through nerve fibres inside the spinal cord. The brain reads these messages and responds accordingly. However, the brain sometimes misinterprets these messages from the nerve fibres and sends out pain signals when it shouldn’t. This is known as neuroplastic pain.
This is when pain symptoms are produced because of learned neural pathways in the brain – and not ongoing structural damage or disease. Essentially, the brain has trained itself to remember the original injury and continues to send a pain response.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a form of meditation that focuses on bringing awareness to the present moment without judgment. This practice is rooted in ancient Eastern traditions and was introduced into Western medicine in the late 1970s.
Practising mindfulness involves paying attention to every sensation in the body, especially breathing, and the surrounding environment. The goal is to be fully present in the moment, accept things as they are, and let go of any judgments or expectations.
Mindfulness helps to rebalance the neural networks and nullify automatic negative responses to situations.
How mindfulness can reduce chronic pain
Mindfulness is one of the most-studied concepts in the field of medicine at the moment, and there is substantial scientific evidence to prove that mindfulness can help alleviate chronic pain. Here are some ways it can help:
1. Decreased pain sensitivity
Practising mindfulness can create changes in the brain and nervous system, altering how the body processes pain.
Several studies have shown that mindfulness can alter brain activity in regions involved in pain processing, such as the prefrontal cortex, insula and anterior cingulate cortex. They show that mindfulness results in lower activation of these areas, leading to decreased pain sensitivity and improved pain tolerance.
Mindfulness can also increase activity in the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes relaxation and healing.
2. Improved emotional regulation
Chronic pain is complicated to treat, primarily because it’s intrinsically linked to the emotional centres in the brain.
Psychological factors such as stress, anxiety and depression are known to make chronic pain worse because when we experience these emotions, our bodies respond by releasing stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones can increase our perception of pain by sensitising our nervous system and amplifying pain signals.
Conversely, positive emotions, such as happiness or relaxation, can dampen pain signals and reduce the sensation of pain.
Mindfulness can help you better manage these emotions by helping to reframe the way you view your thoughts. It can help you learn to view them as ‘mental events’ that have a beginning and an end, giving you a broader perspective and helping you feel prepared to choose how to respond to them in the moment.
Learning to improve your emotional regulation in this way can help rewire your body’s response to pain.
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3. Decreased tension and better relaxation
Stress also causes tension in the muscles, which can exacerbate chronic pain. Mindfulness targets your brain’s reactivity pathway (responsible for the ‘fight-or-flight’ response), decreasing its activity and therefore reducing the amount of stress you feel.
Paired with yoga, mindfulness can be an effective way to reduce chronic pain by targeting your mental and physical tension at the same time, relaxing the body and mind through gentle, mindful movements.
4. Learn to live in the moment again
Chronic pain impacts the enjoyment of everyday activities and relationships with others by providing impediments and unwanted distractions.
Through mindfulness, rather than focusing on the pain you’re feeling, you can reconnect with the world around you and choose to focus on the other sensations that surround us, such as sights, sounds and smells.
It encourages you to return your attention to the present and live in the moment again and, in turn, improve your relationships as you connect more deeply with those around you.
How to practise mindfulness for chronic pain
You can begin practising mindfulness yourself at home. Mindfulness can be self-guided or guided by an audio recording or video. There are plenty of resources targeted at beginners on platforms like YouTube and Spotify.
The key to mindfulness is paying attention to your thoughts, feelings and the world around you, in the present moment, without judgement.
Try these simple steps for individual mindfulness to get you started:
- Focus on your breathing. Count your breaths and pay attention to the feeling of air entering and leaving your lungs.
- Notice your surroundings. Look for the details in your immediate environment – how things look, taste, smell, feel and sound.
- Observe your thoughts. Notice how they come and go and try to accept them non-judgmentally.
- Practise regularly. It helps to practise at the same time every day. Set aside five to ten minutes to focus on your surroundings and thoughts.
Treating chronic pain at White River Manor
Chronic pain is challenging to manage effectively without professional help.
At White River Manor, we have created a 12-week Pain Recovery Program to help you reduce and better manage your pain symptoms.
This program will include a six-week residential stay in the beautiful South African bushveld, where the relaxing atmosphere will facilitate mindfulness and healing.
The entirety of your stay will revolve around several experiential therapies geared towards rewiring your limbic system and improving your emotional regulation. These therapies involve actively engaging in activities and experiences that can facilitate emotional processing and healing.
They include art facilitation and music therapy as a way to express and process emotions, mindfulness-based stress reduction skills to increase your awareness of the present moment and reduce stress and pain, guided imagery techniques to promote relaxation and further reduce pain, and various meditative therapies.
Does this sound like what you need to start your journey towards being pain-free?
Contact us now to learn more about our program.