CHICAGO, August 9, 2012 - Our body does us a favor by hurting when it is ill or damaged, but the favor aspect gets lost in the pain. Although pain can be annoying, excruciating, or any intensity between none of us would live very long without its message. Even a small cut, if unnoticed or ignored, can do us in.
Like it or not, pain helps us stay alive and healthy.
Acute vs Chronic Pain
When pain suddenly comes on it is called acute. Once the problem is addressed, acute pain fades away. If you ever stepped on a piece of glass while playing outside with bare feet, though Mom said, “Put on your shoes before going out,” you know acute pain.
With the glass removed, and the wound cleansed, and dressed, the hurt diminishes as the cut you should never have gotten in the first place, heals.
Chronic pain lasts for months or years, straining your physical and emotional well being. It can be debilitating, and our natural reaction is to resist it as you would an enemy. The enemy is an uninvited, useful guest who overstays its unwelcome; practicing mindfulness is a proven way to make this guest less of a nuisance.
The Matter of Mindfulness
Mindfulness meditation is helpful for treating chronic pain two ways. First, it helps people better tolerate their pain. Second, it can reduce the intensity of the pain sensation. The reason for this is not mystical, but practical. Through mindfulness, people create a different relationship to pain because their perception of it changes.
Though derived from the Buddhist practice of Insight Meditation, mindfulness meditation is a western, non-sectarian technique based on research. The technique is accessible to everyone since all humans have the capacity to be mindful. Unfortunately, many people do not know they have this capability until they read an article like this one and learn mindfulness can be cultivated.
Mindfulness is a non-thinking awareness of what’s happening in the present moment, meaning thoughts, smells, sensations, sights, sounds, and taste. You perform mindfulness by paying attention, on purpose, and without judgement, to whatever arises in the present, within you or without. This practice is effective in managing chronic pain four ways.
How Mindfulness Eases Chronic Pain
- When mindful, we look at things with curiosity instead of judgment. Judgments make the focus of our attention personal whereas curiosity brings detachment. By being curious about pain, it becomes easier to release resistance to it. Pain is more tolerable without resistance; the hurt is no longer a boulder to push uphill, but a stream of continuous change.
- By observing our thoughts during mindfulness meditation we discover thoughts are not facts. They appear and then disappear unless we hang onto them. Even a thought such as, “This pain is unbearable, I can’t take it anymore,” is something that can be let go of.
- By letting painful thoughts go, your feelings, including pain, have nothing to hang on to. People find this reduces discomfort.
- Pain is a word representing many different types of sensations. When attentive to chronic pain, it can be described specifically as tight, tingly, pulsing, sharp, or whatever. It is easier to manage a pulsing sensation, or a steady throb than a shapeless generic blob of pain.
- By practicing mindfulness you notice that chronic discomfort is not “who you are.” It becomes easier to see the pain as part of your life, and not the story of your life. Some people describe it as seeing the discomfort through the “wrong” end of a telescope; it is smaller and farther away.
Not only can mindfulness practice help with pain management, but it helps people live their lives more fully. Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote, “The little things? The little moments? They aren’t little.”
You can learn mindfulness meditation by taking a class with other humans, online, or by using CDs or DVDs.
Find more information and suggestions for managing chronic pain at Healthline.com.
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