What is Mindfulness?
You may have heard of a recently popular approach to bring more focus and calmness into our busy lives. This approach, called mindfulness, is promoted by many health and educatory bodies. With all the things around us, all demanding our attention, we often end up navigating through life on autopilot. Dr. Chris Walsh describes mindfulness as one of the most powerful ways in which we can deal with and overcome psychological, emotion and physical stress. He describes it as an open hearted kind of attentiveness to the present moment and focus on the five senses. “Instead of reacting in our automatic pilot habitual ways we become more spacious allowing us to choose different more skilful ways of responding”.
At its core, mindfulness is about turning off autopilot and training ourselves to be active participants in our own lives.1 This involves bringing our attention to bear on each moment, and truly allowing ourselves to experience it. However, as we don´t have unlimited attention spans, this takes some training. And so mindfulness encourages us to put some concrete time aside each day to meditate. The idea of meditation may sound daunting — or even weird — but it´s really very simple. The easiest way for beginners is to draw our attention to something specific, such as our own breathing, and focus on that one thing for a time.
What you may not know is that this approach also has a lot of benefits when it comes to dealing with pain — particularly chronic pain.2Mindfulness is about bringing your attention to your pain. This might seem counterintuitive, but it acknowledges that it would be pretty impossible not to think about your pain at all. So if we´re going to think about it anyway, we should focus instead on trying not to think about it negatively. This doesn´t mean you have to focus on your pain 24/7. It´s more about finding better ways to deal with it when it does arise. Using mindfulness techniques can help with this in a few ways.3
How can it help my pain?
One of the easiest ways is the breathing meditation mentioned above. Rather than focus on the pain when it arises, focus on your breathing. This helps to change your automatic reaction to pain.4 Accept that you will get distracted (breathing sounds boring, right?), but when you do, gently bring your mind back to your breathing. Don´t reject your distracted thoughts or get frustrated with yourself. Acknowledge them, but gently put them aside for another time and return to breathing.5 This helps us not to get caught up in immediate negative thoughts and, from this calm place, we can then let awareness of our pain in, without judging it. It also helps us to prioritise what needs our attention.6
Breathing meditation also helps your body to relax. This is a useful side effect because stress and tension in the body exacerbate pain, which in turn increases feelings of stress and tension. Becoming relaxed helps to break this cycle.7
The second way is the “body scan”. This involves bringing awareness to each body part individually. Don´t let your brain shy away from confronting painful areas — if you bring your attention to a painful area, you learn that you can actually coexist with it.8 It also helps you to learn more about your pain.9 For example, we might feel like our pain is constant, but if we let ourselves become more aware of it, we might realise there is a lot of time during the day where we have less pain or none at all.10
This method promotes acceptance. Trying to control pain can make us frustrated, because we won´t ever be able to. Acceptance is not about losing hope. It´s about accepting the present moment as it is, with everything it entails, so that we can be more receptive to what might come next. This allows us to be open to more, rather than getting caught up in pain.11
Both of these techniques are forms of meditation, and teach you to experience pain with less distress. Pain experienced in meditation is disconnected from memory, emotion and self-referential thought (thinking about the way this pain impacts me). This makes it less distressing and helps you to change your relationship with your pain.12
At the end of the day, mindfulness is all about making your pain a judgement free zone. It shifts our sense of the situation from something that we have no control over, to an acceptance that, while we may not be able to control the pain itself, we can control how we relate to it.13
Pain doesn´t have to diminish my quality of life!
Finally, when your pain reaches those higher levels, finding something to take your mind off it might actually be a better cause of action. But mindfulness helps us to do this in a calm way. It´s not about running away from the pain in fear. It´s about recognising it, but choosing to do something else.14 Focusing on finding satisfaction in the other aspects of life can result in pain being reduced in importance.15 It teaches us to cope in new ways, and can have really positive effects even when objective measurement of the pain itself doesn´t improve.16
Of course, not being scared of your pain doesn´t mean that you should push yourself too hard, too fast. You should always work with a health professional, such as a physiotherapist, to set safe, realistic goals. Practising mindfulness in the meantime simply helps you to better achieve these goals, and to be more content no matter where you´re at.
1Schütze and Byrne, “Mindfulness and pain.”
2Mindful, “Easing chronic pain with mindfulness.”
3Tartakovsky, “Using mindfulness to approach chronic pain.”
4Tartakovsky, “Using mindfulness to approach chronic pain.”
5Schütze and Byrne, “Mindfulness and pain.”
6Tartakovsky, “Using mindfulness to approach chronic pain.”
7Schütze and Byrne, “Mindfulness and pain.”
8Tartakovsky, “Using mindfulness to approach chronic pain.”
9Schütze and Byrne, “Mindfulness and pain.”
10Tartakovsky, “Using mindfulness to approach chronic pain.”
11Schütze and Byrne, “Mindfulness and pain.”
12Schütze and Byrne, “Mindfulness and pain.”
13Mindful, “Easing chronic pain with mindfulness.”
14Tartakovsky, “Using mindfulness to approach chronic pain.”
15Schütze and Byrne, “Mindfulness and pain.”
16Mindful, “Easing chronic pain with mindfulness.”
knowledge … self-management … prevention