One hundred million Americans suffer from chronic pain, and the opioid epidemic seems to only be worsening as a result. Studies have found mindfulness meditation can drastically reduce chronic pain in a way that is comparable to opiates. If you experience chronic pain regularly, you know how overwhelming the desire to make the pain stop can feel. With mindfulness meditation, rather than running from your pain, you breathe into it, learn from it, and ultimately, heal.
The Complicated Science of Chronic Pain
Christine Forner, owner and lead therapist at Associated Counselling, a mental health service in Calgary, Canada, and author of "Dissociation, Mindfulness, and Creative Meditations: Trauma-Informed Practices to Facilitate Growth," has been working in therapeutic mindfulness for the past twelve years. While treating trauma patients, Forner came to understand the nature of chronic pain.
“It is fairly well-known in the world of neurobiology and trauma that physical pain and emotional pain are registered in the same place in the brain," says Forner. "In the world of body-based therapies, it is common wisdom that pain is pain, regardless if it is a physical or emotional pain.”
But understanding and treating chronic pain gets complicated.
“Acute pain often has a reasonable explanation. But chronic pain often is less clear," says Forner. "The same logic of sudden, acute, emergent pain gets applied to chronic pain and this can create a situation where the source of the pain goes missed.”
Forner likens chronic pain to the pain caused by a splinter in an infant’s foot. The child feels pain and may limp or cry, but it cannot communicate the source of pain. This could lead to lifelong discomfort, an aversion to running, and poor muscle development. The child adjusts to reduce the pain, but the pain never fades. Mindfulness helps us understand the source of our pain so we can face it.
How Mindfulness Helps with Chronic Pain
Mindfulness taps into a part of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) which regulates the body and emotions. With the mPFC, we use tools like compassion, empathy, and insight to respond to pain. As Forner notes, you can use mindfulness to “be objective about what one has been through, to what might be the true source of the pain.” Much of chronic pain isn’t about the physical sensation you would go to a doctor to treat. Rather, it is a response to trauma and stress.
As Forner explains, pain has a direct correlation with stress and survival. When we feel safe and secure, we’re pain-free. When we’re not, our bodies communicate this with pain. Amazingly, the body will produce its own natural opioid as a response to extreme pain and danger. This process is known as disassociation.
Disassociation allowed our primitive ancestors to play dead to survive dangerous situations. As Forner explains, being mindful "inside a predator’s mouth will hurt us more than it will save us.” When we disassociate too often, though, our pain response becomes excessively sensitive. As a result, we lose the inability to mindfully sift through the pain.
Where we are naturally inclined to make pain stop as soon as possible, Forner notes that mindfulness requires that you feel your pain. As she warns, “For some this is an achievable task, for others the pain is very overwhelming and difficult to feel in isolation.” If you don't understand the deeper source of your pain, becoming aware "can be a herculean task.” Ultimately, though, mindfulness allows us to address what the pain is communicating so it can fade.
The Difficulty of Processing Chronic Pain
As Forner explains, mindfulness allows our front brain to “keep us in the land of being okay, to be one step removed while we process the pain." Mindfulness allows us to listen to our pain and possibly to even heal, but the process requires feeling more pain. If we go in not understanding this, “we can easily pop into the felt place of danger and the body can feel like it’s in trouble again and start the process of dissociation.” When this happens, mindfulness becomes almost impossible to achieve.
Mindfulness meditation treats chronic pain not by dampening it, but by allowing us to work through it. Because of the difficulty of the mindfulness journey, Forner recommends finding a mindfulness instructor “who respects pain for what it is," she says. And not simply "trying to rid someone of it.”
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