Overcoming Pain

Why people experience chronic pain, and the power they have to de-intensify it

The Impact of Mind Wandering on Chronic Pain

So, dream you dreamers; but don’t forget the Tylenol.

I have written in the past about the power of the mind in the fight against chronic pain: When there is some sort of injury or insult causing pain, the signal conveying pain travels to the brain via a sensory pathway and an emotional pathway. This emotional aspect of the experience of pain travels to the parts of the brain known as the amygdale and the anterior cingulated cortex. The mind-body treatments that involve such activities as meditation and relaxation likely affect these emotional networks.

I have also discussed how researchers have used functional magnetic resonance imaging to allow chronic pain patients to "visualize" pain. These images allow a patient to actively participate in manipulating what has heretofore been an amorphous concept. The chronic pain patient becomes empowered, whether it be through yoga, biofeedback, or meditation.

The issue that has not been addressed is the strength of mind when confronted with such arduous tasks. Is the mind of the chronic pain patient equipped to focus with such consistency that chronic pain is chronically improved? For example, what sort of impact does daydreaming have on patients who use yoga and meditation as therapeutic modalities?

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An article in the publication "Science" a few months back would seem to indicate that we all must deal with the cognitive interference of being human beings: A group of clever researchers at Harvard utilized the iPhone to periodically interrupt the lives of over 2,000 subjects. The researchers found that minds wandered about 47% of the time. Interestingly, those subjects with wandering minds were less happy compared to those focused on the task of the moment. In fact, in more than twenty reported activities, it was found that mind wandering occurred a significant proportion of the time-except when the activity was sex, during which subjects were focused on the task at hand (or whatever body part might have been involved) about 90% of the time. And, yes, subjects reported being happy during whatever sexual task the iPhone happened to interrupt.

After sex, the list included exercise, conversation, listening to music, walking, eating, praying and meditating, cooking, shopping, caring for children, and reading; and the activities with the most mind wandering included personal grooming, commuting, and, of course, working.

Daydreaming appeared to lead to unhappiness, not unhappiness leading to daydreaming. Unhappiness certainly does not help chronic pain; there are too many studies that can support that conclusion. However, the knowledge that a lack of focus can not only lead to dysphoria, but also detract from the potency of the mind in the fight against chronic pain, should cause us all to redouble our efforts to approach life with focus. Correct?

But then do we risk becoming automatons? Lacking pain, but also lacking reflection?

Fear not, the psychological literature comes to the rescue, as does the adage, "moderation in all things". Daydreaming has its place in mental hygiene, in the proper context, and in reasonable quantities.

So, dream you dreamers; but don't forget the Tylenol.

 

 

 

 

Mark Borigini, M.D., is a board-certified rheumatologist who has devoted his career to treating illnesses that cause chronic pain and disability.

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