Chronic pain can negatively impact a person’s quality of life on many levels. There is of course, the constant physical pain and then there is the mental anguish that comes from what can feel like relentless discomfort. This can often lead to depressive and/or anxiety symptoms due to feelings of helplessness and worry that the pain will not subside or that even small tasks will cause more pain. Chronic pain can lead to isolation as the sufferer often fears that they will have to abruptly leave a social outing or that others will not understand, or may even judge, their limitations. Loss of income often follows, as increased activity can worsen pain, resulting in individuals needing to take time off or use disability benefits. Isolation and loss of income can exacerbate the depressive and anxiety symptoms as well, that can in turn, make it harder to cope with the constant pain. It is a cyclical pattern that can feel never ending.So, with chronic pain being a difficult and multi-dimensional issue, how does one cope when there isn’t necessarily a cure or end to the pain in sight?
MIndfulness has been found to significantly improve the distress caused by chronic pain. Although not a quick fix, mindfulness works well as it is also multi-dimensional in its scope for healing.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
One form of mindfulness-based treatment called MIndfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), has been found to be the “gold standard” program for stress-related illness and chronic pain. Created by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979, MBSR is an 8 week program consisting of daily meditation and yoga practice as well as lessons on basic mindfulness concepts. It has been found to be clinically significantly effective for chronic pain, as well as for the secondary symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Befriending Your Pain
One of the basic tenets of mindfulness is to work toward accepting “what is”, rather than constantly seeking out something “better” or “different”, whether it be wanting the nicer car or wanting to feel happier in the moment. It is about accepting whatever comes, no matter how painful or uncomfortable it may be. In a way, it is like, making friends with the pain and discomfort. When we do not accept what we are currently feeling, we are rejecting, or fighting against reality. When we fight against reality, we add more strain and suffering to what is already painful. In MBSR, we learn that, “Suffering = Pain X Resistance”. Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. By accepting the pain that we feel, we are reducing our suffering. Can we then turn toward our pain as if it is a friend and be kind to it, nurture it a bit? Is it possible to manage our pain better with this mindset? According to many mindfulness teachings, including MBSR, the answer is yes.
You Are Not Your Pain
Mindfulness teaches us that we don’t have to identify with our pain. When pain or illness becomes chronic, it can seep into all areas of our lives and feel as though it is us. However, it is one piece of a very large puzzle that encompasses one’s life. Mindfulness can help us to put some emotional and even physical distance from our pain so that we can observe it as more of an objective bystander.
If you are suffering with chronic pain, starting a mindfulness practice may be a helpful supplement to your treatment. If you are not ready to take the 8 week MBSR course, trying some audio of mindfulness meditations is a great way to start. Even if you cannot start a daily meditation practice, finding some regularity with the practice is still beneficial. Some great meditation apps are Insight Timer, Buddhify, Calm and Headspace.
Dr. Christina Barber-Addis is the founder of New Awakenings Therapy and is a mindfulness-based, licensed psychologist in private practice in Woodland Hills, California. She specializes in treating adults with anxiety by incorporating mindfulness meditation into her therapy practice.