Mindfulness and Pain Relief
Cognitive behavioural psychotherapist Steve Clifford explains the different components of pain and outlines the clear relationship between mindfulness and pain relief.
Pain is something that all human beings experience from time to time. If we look closely at pain, we see that it consists of three components:
- The sensory or physical component – how it feels in our body
- The affect or emotional component – how the sensation of pain makes us feel
- The cognitions or thoughts that go through our mind in relation to the pain
For example, if I stub my toe I will experience pain. At first it will be very acute and then gradually it will wane to a throb or dull ache. I am hardwired to respond this way, as nerve cells in my toe send messages direct to my brain. How I respond to the pain signals is all a matter of perception and this applies to the way we handle the thoughts and emotions that arise in relation to the pain.
Typical reactions are fearful thoughts, “Oh damn, I bet my toe is broken?” or “I expect I will have to go to casualty.” We might curse ourselves, “You silly fool, you should have been looking where you were walking!” You will notice from these responses that our mind either instinctively races to the future or reverts back to the past.
The power of the mind in dealing with pain
The Buddha once said that when we experience pain it is like being shot by two arrows. The first arrow is the pain itself, the second arrow is how we respond to the pain, usually cursing and doing everything in our power to block out the sensations. He said that you may not necessarily be able to remove the first arrow, but you can the second. In other words, by resisting or fighting it, contracting around or against it – mentally screaming out stop, no or go away, we experience “suffering”.
Mindfulness practice offers us a different way of relating to our pain experience. I have coined the following definition: “Mindfulness is a way of being, being in the moment.” It is this notion of being in the moment that is the key to managing pain.
Learning to respond, not react, to the ever-present flow of events and experiences gives us choices. Learning to respond with patience, openness and compassion allows us to let go of fear and stress. Learning how to stay in the moment, and not race into the future or dwell in the past, offers us a way to connect with calm and ease.
Concentrate on the breathing
Mindfully using the breath as an anchor or, as I like to say, connecting with “my invisible friend”, I can immediately connect to the present moment. I can “observe with awareness” the physical sensations in my toe as they ebb and flow, shift and change. I can also observe the thoughts I have in relation to the sensations I am experiencing. By bringing mindful awareness to the pain, I have stepped out of the “reacting” position, and have found a way of “responding” to the unpleasant sensations in my toe. I have an option, a tiny window of freedom whereby I can “choose” how I will “relate” in that moment – and in the next – and in the next.
By focusing on the breath and not getting caught up in my negative thoughts, I have “changed my relationship” to the sensations I am experiencing. In other words I have liberated myself from the reactivity of my mind; yes, I still feel pain but I experience it very differently, having “changed my relationship” to it.
Breathing with the pain, learning to bring “awareness” to the pain, being with the pain, I am able to be with things just as they are. Because our emotions are powerful, just using the term “pain”, rather than say, the term “discomfort” for example, we will re-connect with all those thoughts, memories, ideas, emotions, projections, and fearful associations we have about pain. The same is true of other words such as cancer, paedophile, murderer, death, etc. Words are just abstractions; they are not the thing itself. Learning to step back and change our relationship to this thing we call pain, can open the door to alternatives such as calm or peace or easing or letting go…
Until next time,
If you would like to learn more about managing pain through mindfulness meditation why not join my local mindfulness group where you can experience simple practices and learn mindfulness techniques along with others, to help you change your relationship to pain and develop skills to enhance your quality of life.
Alternatively, why not book an individual CBT session with me at Lushington Chiropractic in Eastbourne.
By Steve Clifford – Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist.
By James Revell
Call now 01323 722499