When you are in pain the main thing you want is for it to go away. You try everything to get rid of the pain and if that’s not possible, you use whatever techniques you can to try and forget or imagine the pain away.
So, when instead you are asked to focus on the pain and give it some attention – that really is counterintuitive to everything you have learnt in the past. But that is the premise behind treating chronic pain with mindfulness.
Mindfulness – is present moment awareness – deliberately paying attention to the here and now – acknowledging your thoughts, feelings and physical sensations, accepting things for what they are compassionately and without judgement.
Although mindfulness is a non-religious practice its roots in Buddhism go back thousands of years. Anyone from any faith or religion, from any background, of any age can practice mindfulness and reap the benefits to live a more meaningful, peaceful and balanced life, and it is currently being found in all spheres of life – from schools to hospitals, from the workplace to the community – and even in parliament.
If you suffer from chronic pain or severe discomfort, your intuitive response is to turn away from the pain, but with mindfulness you turn towards it, investigating what is actually happening in the moment. You do this with a curious, open and non-judgemental mind.
By approaching the pain without any expectations, you do not put yourself under added pressure to feel relief – rather you are relating to the pain differently. You ask yourself questions like “What do I notice about this pain?” and “What can I learn about this pain?”
By doing this, you limit the negative thoughts and judgements that you may have. These negative thoughts are what exacerbate the pain, whilst also possible increasing anxiety and depression.
Focusing on breathing is of paramount importance when dealing with pain. When you bring your focus to a pain or tension in your body, you are encouraged to breathe into the pain. This helps to reduce the impact of the pain on the body.
There are many mindfulness exercises you can use to bring awareness to your pain. Here is one I find particularly useful.
Mindfulness Practice for Pain
Find a comfortable sitting position – if sitting is too painful you may want to lie down. It is important to be as comfortable as you can be to practice.
Closing your eyes if you feel comfortable to do so – or just lower your gaze. Just sitting with that for a moment.
Step A: Awareness
Bring your awareness to your internal experience and ask yourselves the following questions:
• What are my thoughts at the moment? What are my thoughts about the pain I am feeling?
Acknowledge these thoughts but don’t get caught up in them.
• What emotions am I feeling at the moment? What am I feeling as a result of the pain that I am in?
Acknowledge these emotions – comfortable or uncomfortable – no need to try and change them.
• What body sensations am I feeling at the moment?
How does my body feel? Where is the pain in my body? What do I notice about this pain?
Acknowledge this pain or discomfort – but do not try to change it – just accept it for what it is at the moment.
Step B: Breathing
• Now focus on your breathing.
• Take time to give attention to each breath – from the time you breathe in to the time you breathe out. Feel the rise and fall of your abdomen as you inhale and exhale. If this is too painful, then focus on the breath in and out of your nose.
• If you find your mind wandering do not worry. Acknowledge that your mind has wandered, but don’t judge yourself. Be kind to yourself. Gently bring your mind back to your breathing – and carry on.
Step C: Consciously Breathing into the Pain
Now take your awareness from your breathing and take it to the part of your body that you feel pain or discomfort. Then, breathe in through your nose, and as you do so imagine that the breath is travelling down/up to that body part and the pain. As you breathe out, imagine the breath (and pain) leaving the body part and travelling back to the nose to be exhaled. Do this as many times as you like.
Now offer yourself some kindness. You can do this in whatever way you feel comfortable. You can imagine holding your body with care and compassion. You can just say the words “Be kind to myself”. Just notice what happens.
Then, take a moment to rest and when you feel ready bring your mind back to the room you are in, to the sounds around you and when you feel ready, gently open your eyes.
To begin with spend around a minute on each step. With time you can increase the time you spend at each stage. Just do what feels comfortable for you.