Turning Straw Into Gold

Life through a Buddhist lens

5 Techniques to Help with Physical Pain

Five alternatives to the misguided advice: “push through the pain.”

In an earlier article, Mindfulness: Potent Medicine for Easing Physical Suffering, I noted that bodily discomfort has three components: (1) the unpleasant physical sensation itself; (2) our emotional reaction to the discomfort, such as anger or fear; and (3) the thoughts that are triggered by the discomfort, such as, "This pain will never go away" or "I'm a weak person because I hate this pain so much." In that piece, I discussed (2) and (3) which—together—are often called mental suffering. Here, I want to focus on (1) above—the actual physical sensation of pain, although the techniques I'll describe can help with any physical discomfort (I know because I use them for my achy flu-like symptoms).

Before I explain these techniques, I want to make it clear that I don't have a negative view of pain medication. I think it's misguided that so many people regard the taking of pain medication as a sign of weakness. We're told "no pain...no gain" or "push through the pain." I suspect that people who offer this type of advice have never suffered from chronic pain. Everyone has to find what's right for his or her body. For some of you, it may be a combination of pain medication and these techniques.

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Preliminaries

It always helps to begin with conscious breathing in which you pay attention to the physical sensation of the breath as it goes in and out of your body. Find a comfortable position—sitting or lying down—and begin to breathe mindfully. Do a quick scan of your body from head to toe. If you feel any muscles that are tight, try to relax them. After a few minutes of this breathing, try these five techniques to see if they help relieve your physical pain. I recommend experimenting with each of them to see which ones work for you. Some of the techniques are adapted from what is called MBSR: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. I like to call it Mindfulness-Based Pain Reduction.

The Techniques

1. Focus on the pain itself, paying careful attention to the sensations that make it up. Is there burning? Is there throbbing? Is there tingling? Heat? Cold? Are there waves of sensations where the pain gets more intense and then less intense? This separating out of the sensations is called "sensory splitting." It helps you see that what you've been thinking of as a permanent solid block of pain is really many different constantly changing sensations.

When you separate the sensations in this manner, pain is no longer "a thing," and so you're much less likely to be carried away by stress-filled thoughts about it, such as, "This pain will never go away." You can even drop the word "pain," and just notice the sensations as arising and passing experiences in your body. Doing this helps you see the impermanent nature of this collection of sensations that we call "pain."

Finally, bring an attitude of kindness toward the sensations, even though they may be unpleasant. Your body isn't purposefully making you suffer. Treat it as you'd treat a child in pain.

2. Rest your attention on a pain-free part of your body. At first, you might think there isn't such a place, but with persistence, you can find it. It could be your toes, your face, your chest. Relax into that pain-free sensation, allowing it to become the predominate sensation if you can, even if for just a few moments. This allows you to see that you are not just pain since there's at least one place on your body that is pain-free.

You can take this technique a step further and engage a pain-free area in some movement. I'll reveal a secret because at least you won't see me in action. I sometimes lie on my back in bed and move my hands in balletic movements. I love to watch my hands and fingers imitate the grace of a ballerina.

I got this idea from a teacher at a meditation retreat, many years ago. At the retreat, we alternated periods of sitting and walking meditation. In the latter, the instruction is to walk very slowly, staying mindfully aware of the physical sensation of one foot touching the ground as the other foot comes off the ground. I was having terrible back pain and found it too hard to engage in walking meditation. I felt like my whole being was "back pain," so I sought the help of a teacher.

She told me to lie down during the walking period and just maintain mindful awareness of the physical sensation of my hands moving in the air. Little did I know the joy this would bring as I wound up playing "Itsy Bitsy Spider" for the rest of the retreat—mindfully of course! I doubt that this is what the teacher had in mind, but in addition to having fun, I learned that my body was not just a painful back.

3. Consciously pay attention to other pleasant or at least interesting sense data that are in the present moment. Find as many as you can—the sight and feel of the sun shining through the window, the sound of cars passing by, a fleeting thought about what you'll eat for dinner, the hum of the refrigerator motor, the physical sensation of a wisp of hair on your cheek, an odor coming from the kitchen. Paying attention to as many sensory inputs as you can often eases your pain because it relegates it to just one of many sensory experiences going on in your life at the present moment.

Maké Horse Beach
4. Try imagery. Bring to mind a place from the past when you were pain-free. Make the image vivid. My place is Maké Horse Beach on Moloka'i. I imagine the sight of the waves, the sound of them crashing onshore, the warmth of the sand, the smell of the air. Wherever your place is, transport yourself there. Using imagery to take your mind off your pain relaxes the body, including the muscles around the pain site. This can reduce your overall pain load.

5. Describe your present moment experience. This is adapted from a practice in my book that I learned from Byron Katie via my daughter. The basic technique is to ground yourself in the present moment by shifting your attention from stressful thoughts and emotions about the past or the future to what is happening physically to you right in the moment. To do this, you describe concretely what you're doing right now: "Woman lying in bed, reading a book"; "Man sitting in a waiting-room chair."

To use this technique to help with pain, describe what you're feeling in your body, but leave out the adjectives. In expressive writing, adjectives are powerful tools to enhance the meaning of a word, but we don't want to enhance our pain by loading our description of it with vivid words! (Those vivid words often carry an emotional punch.) So, if your shoulder is in pain, instead of saying "Woman in unbearable shoulder pain" or "Man in unrelenting shoulder pain," leave out the adjectives and just say, "Woman in shoulder pain" or "Man lying on bed with shoulder pain."

By leaving out the "loaded" descriptive words, you're much less likely to trigger stressful thoughts and emotions about the pain, such as, "I hate this pain and I'm positive that it will never go away." After repeating your adjective-less phrase several times, try one of the other techniques I've described above. Who knows? Maybe you'll find yourself making balletic moves with your toes!

Be patient with yourself when trying these techniques. If you try them and they don't help relieve your pain, take a deep breath, send non-judgmental compassionate thoughts to yourself—"it's hard to try these techniques and not have them work right away"—and then set the intention to try them again soon.

Note: The theme of this article is expanded upon in Chapter 11 ("Awakening to the Body through Mindfulness") of my book, How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow. Also see my article "Using the Body Scan to Help with Chronic Pain and Illness".

© 2011 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com

Thank you for reading my work. My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.

I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers

Using the envelope icon, you can email this piece to others. You can also subscribe to my blog (see the choices below my picture). I’m active on FacebookPinterest, and (to a lesser extent) Twitter.

Toni Bernhard, J.D., is a former law professor at University of California at Davis. She wrote the award-winning How to Be Sick and, recently, How to Wake Up.

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