Tuning Into Pain: How Mindfulness is Changing the Way We Cope with Chronic Pain

What would happen if you placed your hand on a hot stove burner? Would you stand there with your hand on the stove? No. You would probably pull your hand away immediately to avoid getting burned. Your body has numerous defenses to protect you from pain and injury including muscle tension and the Fight or Flight Response. Naturally we want to remove or distract ourselves from painful stimuli or situations. Similarly, our negative evaluation of pain can also serve as a safety mechanism. Such judgments make us vigilant and incite us to flee from immediate danger. Yet, what happens when physical pain and the anticipation of pain cannot be avoided and becomes a prolonged or permanent state.

In the case of persistent pain, negative evaluations of pain and or wishing these sensations away is unproductive and can intensify the subjective perception of pain. Moreover, people with chronic pain may also experience some degree of negative self evaluation, feelings of guilt, and/or responsibility for their condition (American Psychological Association, 2015). Currently, one hundred million Americans suffer from chronic pain and are vulnerable to emotional and physical distress related to this condition. Many will also see numerous specialists, undergo various medical procedures and medication treatments and adverse side effects, for minimal or no relief. (American Academy of Pain Medicine, 2015) Yet, where medical treatments come to a standstill in pain management, mindfulness has emerged as an alternative or supplemental treatment. While encouraging people to increase their attention to pain seems paradoxical, numerous specialists believe that increased awareness is the precise thing to help mitigate, cope with, and transform chronic physical pain. Research shows that individuals with chronic pain who engage in mindfulness meditation demonstrate greater activation of brain regions that regulate emotion and pain. They also report lower pain levels following mindfulness exercises. These benefits may occur with as little as 20 minutes of meditation a day over a 4 day period (Zeidan, Martucci, Kraft, Gordon, McHaffie, Coghill, 2011). Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is a leading figure in the mindfulness movement helping people cope with stress, anxiety, pain, and illness. Kabat-Zinn (1994) defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” In his Mindfulness- Based approach to Stress and Pain Reduction, a program based on 30 years helping patients with chronic pain conditions, Kabat-Zinn offers that by increasing your awareness of intense and painful regions of the body, you can cultivate a new relationship with physical pain and with your own mind and body. He invites listeners to notice the regions of the body that are free from pain and the body regions that are hurting, “just a quick toe in the water and then out” (Kabat-Zinn, 2009). Mindfulness does not aim to make the pain be a certain way. It fosters acceptance of pain as it is. The hope is that mindfulness may help people to discover new ways of being in relation to pain. Pain may be unavoidable in life, but perhaps suffering is optional to some degree. Mindfulness, as Kabat-Zinn describes, “It’s as much play as it is work. It is a throwing yourself into the dance whether the music is something of your choosing or not, as something of an experiment, an adventure in reclaiming your life to whatever degree is possible” (2009).     References

American Academy of Pain Medicine. (2015).What is chronic pain? Accessed from


American Psychological Association (APA). (2015). Stress effects on the body. Accessed from


Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New

York: Hyperion Books.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2009). Mindfulness meditation for pain relief: Guided practices for reclaiming your

body and your life – audio book.

Zeidan, F., Martucci, K., Kraft, R., Gordon, N., McHaffie, J., Coghill, R. (2011).

Behavioral/systems/cognitive brain mechanisms supporting the modulation of pain by

mindfulness meditation.The Journal of Neuroscience, April 6, 31(14) 5540 –5548. Accessed

from http://www.jneurosci.org/content/31/14/5540.full.pdf+html

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