How to Use Meditation to Manage Chronic Pain
I still remember the sharp crack of pain as the back of my head landed on the concrete floor. I was just four years old, and I’d fallen from the staircase of an unfinished basement at a friend’s house. I was lucky, the doctors found no signs of fracture or concussion. Yet, within a few years of that fall, I began to have severe headaches, quite a bummer for an energetic 7 year-old. As I grew up, chronic pain become a familiar, if unwanted part of my life.
By my mid-20s, things had approached something of a turning point. The pain had become so bad, I could hardly hold a book or do household chores. Around then, I started a meditation practice. I had little hope of it helping with my pain, but quite unexpectedly, it did.
Bit by bit, as I sat noticing my breath and body sensations, I began to feel the deep knots of pain in my body start to untie themselves.
Fast forwarding to the present, I still get headaches and other chronic pain issues occasionally, but my overall experience of pain is dramatically different. Through meditation, my pain levels have been dramatically reduced and when they do flare up, I know there is something I can do to cope.
In this article, we’ll explore how mindfulness meditation can help when you’re suffering from chronic pain.
1. The Pain is Not all in Your Head
Let’s start by addressing one of the greatest barriers for those considering whether to try using meditation for chronic pain. Often people with chronic pain feel that the reality of their pain is unrecognized, doubted or diminished by others. The idea that meditation can help us with our pain, could be seen as just another way of claiming that our pain is all in our heads.
The antidote to this understandable concern is to understand that just because meditation uses our mind, doesn’t mean that it can’t affect pain that is physical. I’ve taught meditation to people recovering from surgery and seen how it helped them with postoperative pain. Nobody would say that that is all in their heads! In addition, studies have shown that meditators have higher pain thresholds than non-meditators even for externally induced pain.1
To re-cap, it’s understandable to be defensive when somebody doubts the reality of your physical pain. At the same time, meditation helps with all kinds of pain, whether the root cause is physical, emotional, or a mix of the two.
2. The Paradox of Paying Attention
When we’re in pain, the last thing we want to do is give it our full attention. In fact, before mindfulness hit the scene, cognitive therapies for people coping with pain emphasized distraction of various kinds. Mindfulness meditation encourages the opposite approach. To become more aware, more attentive, rather than more distracted. Brain studies have shown that when trained meditators pay attention to painful sensations, the pain sensing parts of the brain light up but the parts of the brain responsible for the suffering associated with pain are less active.2
It isn’t just the amount of attentiveness that matters, it’s also the quality of attention. Sometimes people with chronic pain develop a hyper-vigilant type of attention. They may be very sensitive to every subtle shift in their pain, but this doesn’t help reduce their pain and may make it worse. The type of attention we cultivate in mindfulness practice is focused, accepting, and clear.
Focused means that our attention goes where we tell it to go, it isn’t scattered or easily pulled away by random distractions. Accepting means that as various experiences enter and leave our awareness, we allow them come and go without resistance. We try not to judge or evaluate these experiences as good or bad. Finally, clear means that we have a vivid and precise awareness of what’s happening, not a dull or vague one.
By training these three qualities of attention, meditation teaches us to attend to our pain in a way that helps reduce our suffering.
3. Regulating the Response
Learning to focus mindful attention on our pain is a big part of the mindfulness strategy for pain. Yet, we also need to be mindful of our response to the pain. Our most common and natural response to pain is aversion, we don’t like it. This response isn’t something we can just switch off, but we can start to consciously notice it. As we become more aware of our response, we automatically start to regulate or soften our more extreme responses and this helps us manage our pain.
Here’s how. First, tune into your pain. Then ask yourself, “what else happens inside me when I sense this pain?”. You aren’t looking for a quick and easy answer to the question. Instead, you are using the question to point your attention to your present moment of experience of reacting to your pain.
Sometimes, the response will be obvious. You might notice a torrent of worried thoughts, or a visceral frustration. Other times it will be more subtle or surprising. I still remember the first time I realized that my pain made me feel safe. I didn’t want to be in pain, yet, I felt afraid of being without it, so familiar had it become over the decades. As this example illustrates, there is no right or wrong way to respond to your pain.
4. Putting the Pieces Together
An important mindfulness practice you can use to work with pain is called the body scan. This is a practice where we move our attention systematically through different body parts, starting at the top and working out way down, then back up again. We try to accept and be attentive to whatever sensations we notice in the body, without evaluating or trying to change what we find.
In the body scan meditation we can apply all the concepts from this article. If you notice yourself doubting whether the practice can work for your pain, remind yourself that mindfulness helps with all forms of pain regardless of the cause. Then practice attending to your body sensations with those three qualities of mindful attention, focus, acceptance, and clarity. These qualities take time to develop so be patient with yourself and stick with it. Finally, from time to time, ask yourself how you are reacting to your body sensations, and spend sometime being mindful of the what comes up.
Grant, J., et al. (2010). Cortical thickness and pain sensitivity in Zen meditators. Emotion, 10, 43–53.
Gard T., Holzel B., Sack A., Hempel H., Vaitl D., & Ott U. (2011). Pain attenuation through mindfulness is associated with decreased cognitive control and increased sensory processing in the brain. Cerebral Cortex, 191, 36–43.