When we’re in pain, we want it to go away. Immediately. And that’s understandable. Chronic pain is frustrating and debilitating. The last thing we want to do is pay more attention to our pain. But that’s the premise behind mindfulness, a highly effective practice for chronic pain (among other concerns).
Mindfulness teaches us to “pay attention to something on purpose and with fresh eyes.” This is why mindfulness is so helpful. Instead of focusing on how badly we want the pain to stop, we pay attention to our pain with curiosity and without judgement.
This approach is very different from what our brains naturally do when we experience the physiological sensation of pain. Our minds typically launch into a litany of judgements and negative thoughts. We start ruminating about how much we hate the pain and want to wish it away. We judge the pain, and that only makes it worse. In fact, our negative thoughts and judgements not only exacerbate the pain, they also fuel anxiety and depression.
What also makes matters worse is that our minds start brainstorming ways to soothe the pain. Goldstein likens this to the Roomba, a robot vacuum. If you trap the Roomba, it just keeps bouncing off the edges. Our brains do the same with scouring for solutions. This “creates a lot of frustration, stress and feeling trapped.”
Mindfulness teaches people with chronic pain to be curious about the intensity of their pain, instead of letting their minds jump into thoughts like “This is awful,” said Goldstein, also author of The Now Effect: How This Moment Can Change The Rest of Your Life.
It also teaches individuals to let go of goals and expectations. When you expect something will ease your pain, and it doesn’t or not as much as you’d like, your mind goes into alarm- or solution-mode. You start thinking thoughts like “nothing ever works.”
“What we want to do as best as we can is to engage with the pain just as it is.” It’s not about achieving a certain goal – like minimizing pain – but learning to relate to your pain differently, he said.
Goldstein called it a learning mindset, as opposed to an achievement-oriented mindset. In other words, as you’re applying mindfulness to your pain, you might consider your experience, and ask yourself: “What can I learn about this pain? What do I notice?”
As Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D, writes in the introduction of The Mindfulness Solution to Pain, “From the perspective of mindfulness, nothing needs fixing. Nothing needs to be forced to stop, or change, or go away.”
Mindfulness provides a more accurate perception of pain. For instance, you might think that you’re in pain all day. But bringing awareness to your pain might reveal that it actually peaks, valleys and completely subsides. One of Goldstein’s clients believed that his pain was constant throughout the day. But when he examined his pain, he realised it hits him about six times a day. This helped to lift his frustration and anxiety.
If you’re struggling with chronic pain and you would like Mindfulness coaching contact me.