By Ferris Jabr, published on July 16, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Pain is necessary. It alerts us to threats, teaches us to avoid future risks, and makes sure we don't forget to help ourselves heal. Our bodies have evolved instinctive reactions to pain and injury—accidentally brush your hand against a boiling kettle and your arm will retract reflexively before you even realize why. Our minds, too, respond to pain in a characteristic manner: ever notice how even a minor wound can dominate your thoughts?
But what if you could manipulate your natural response to pain in order to control and alleviate suffering? That approach—aided by a technique known as mindfulness meditation—holds great promise for those experiencing chronic pain.
Though pain usually serves a beneficial purpose, chronic pain—which persists far longer than the usual period for an injury or illness—is pathological. Close to 1 in 3 Americans suffers from chronic pain to varying degrees, according to Penny Cowan, founder and executive director of the American Chronic Pain Association. Headaches and pain from the lower back, cancer, and arthritis are among the more common afflictions.
In a June 2008 study published in The Journal of Pain, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that elderly individuals who suffer from chronic low back pain benefited from mindfulness meditation, experiencing less pain, better sleep, enhanced well-being, and improved quality of life. And a 2003 review in Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice found significant improvements in pain ratings and other medical and psychological symptoms across a decade of studies.
The basics of mindfulness meditation aren't as complicated as you may think. First, you should simply relax, while maintaining good posture. Then close your eyes and accept all sensations as they filter through you. Don't judge them, but rather focus on your breathing. If you get distracted, gently guide yourself back to the sound and rhythm of your own breathing. The aim is to achieve active and focused moment-by-moment awareness of your present experience.
If you are in chronic pain, you may worry that increasing your awareness could only amp up your suffering. But mindfulness meditation can actually help by redirecting your attention, Cowan says. Our instinct is to resist pain, but resistance only increases suffering. Mindfulness can relinquish your resistance, thereby lessening the experience of your pain.
Meditation can help you find "the spaces in between" all of your experiences, where you can be in the moment and not in the pain—or worries about the pain, or feelings of anxiety or sadness, says Lonnie Zeltzer, professor of pediatrics, anesthesiology, and psychiatry at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine, and director of the Pediatric Pain Program. "By sitting each day to meditate, your brain actually begins to quiet down; you begin to feel more equanimity, and the pain begins to lessen and move from foreground to background."
A few suggestions for mindfulness meditation:
Location can influence your ability to meditate properly. Above all, choose a place where you feel comfortable. The less distracting and quieter it is, the better.
You may sit in a chair or on the ground, but sitting with your legs crossed and your back straight is best. Comfort is good; slouching isn't. Buddhists believe that erect posture strengthens the connection between mind and body.
Your primary goal is to maintain a focus on—and solely on—your own natural inhalation and exhalation. Not only does such focus anchor you to successful meditation, it helps relax your body and your mind.
Inevitably, your thoughts are going to wander. It will be impossible to think only of your breathing. But that's perfectly fine. Simply return your focus each time you realize you've been distracted.