Mindfulness is a term used to identify the focus and awareness of the present moment. Mindfulness can be achieved in more ways than one. There are a number of practices that are being utilized around the world with the common objective of awareness and focus as well as improving physical and mental health.
Mindfulness can be viewed as an exercise, a way of thinking, or a lifestyle. You can achieve mindfulness in time be it through meditation, yoga practices, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, or simply by taking some time to sit in quiet thought. One thing that these exercises share in common is the crisp, clean silence, both around us and inside of us.
By quieting our environment we are then given the opportunity to quiet our minds from the everyday chatter of our thoughts. If you have ever sat in silence before and tried to focus on one train of thought, then you know how difficult it can be to avoid additional thoughts and distractions that can creep into your mind and draw you away from your point of focus. This is normal, as our brains have been designed to process multiple thoughts, and leap from one idea to another.
Learning how to quiet the mind is not an easy feat. It can take much practice to train your mind to focus and ignore the urge to give in to traveling thoughts.
That being said there is great merit to mastering inner silence. With practice and patience you train yourself to achieve the full awareness and a clear understanding of what is going on inside of your mind, inside of your body, and inside of the world that surrounds you.
So what, if anything, does that have to do with pain? You may be surprised to learn that mindfulness can often be the best medicine for people living with chronic pain.
First let’s begin with what we already know about chronic pain. Living day to day with chronic pain can be extremely difficult. The pain can be excruciating. Being active can be painful. Being inactive can be painful. And ignoring the pain can be impossible.
Many who live with chronic pain are also relying on medications to help manage the pain. It can be stressful and disheartening knowing that without your medication, you are left feeling hopeless and in pain. Treatments may be offered, however when treatments are unsuccessful, hope can start to fade into the background.
Your mind may be so clouded with thoughts and worries of your health, your family, your finances and the future, that focusing may seem impossible. Will my pain always be there? How will my family and friends be affected? How will we make ends meet? Will there ever be a cure?
A clouded mind can be a barrier for all of us. Specifically with those who are in pain, a clouded mind could rob you of the chance at a better overall quality of life.
When first starting out to practice a mindfulness, the idea is to train your mind to ignore the chatter. Once you can achieve that, you can then go about life with mindful thinking, and apply mindful thought to your everyday life.
Mindfulness gives us the opportunity to focus on the pain, and embrace it rather than fight against it. That concept may sound odd at first. Our initial, primal instinct is first to fight off the danger. However mindfulness teaches us that it is much better to analyze, understand and be aware of our pain. If we focus with a clear mind on the pain sensations in our bodies, we can gain a better understanding of our pain, and a result, better control over it.
Our minds work in a very dynamic way. Our minds are constantly trying to make connections. These connections can be past experiences, past knowledge or even past memories. It is for this reason that when your brain receives a pain signal, it tries to connect to the last time you suffered the same pain. When pain is chronic, the mind is flooded with memories of past painful experiences. This can change the way we perceive and feel pain, making it more intense as time goes on.
The brain also works to store information, whether we are conscious about it or not. If negative, fearful and worrisome thoughts related to our pain are common in our mind, then our brain will store that information for future use. Eventually, the way our minds breakdown our pain can also be altered and we learn to see and feel the negative more distinctively. Eventually, the negative can become all we see. By practicing mindfulness, we can train ourselves to break the negative thoughts and see the present moment for what it is, an not be influenced by the data that our minds have collected over time.
Recent studies have shown that practicing mindfulness can calm the brain patterns attributed to pain. Meaning, those who practice mindfulness are able to change the way their brain responds to pain stimulus over time. These alterations can have a long term effects, changing the way the person perceives and feels the pain. This can lead to a decrease in the intensity and the quality of pain.
Many physicians are now recommending mindful practices to help patients cope with chronic pain as well as to help cope with a variety of illnesses that can cause pain to some degree.
Those who take part in mindfulness have also been known to gain better control of their body as a whole by focusing their mind. Mindfulness can help someone gain control over their heart rate, blood pressure and anxiety, just to name a few.
Although it may sound difficult to wrap your head around at first, practicing mindfulness isn’t all that complicated. It is simply going back to the basics. Breathe and analyze.
For someone who is new to mindfulness, there is an easy exercise to use to gain a better understanding of your pain, and to train your mind to quiet the chatter. This exercise is called a Body Scan.
Start off by being in a quiet and comfortable place. It can help to close your eyes so that you are not distracted by the atmosphere around you. The next step would be to begin the Body Scan. This is especially important for people who are in pain. During a Body Scan, you will focus all of your attention on once specific body part at a time.
You can take part in a body scan in either a sitting, or lying position. Whichever is more comfortable for you. Allow your entire body to relax. Imagine that you are sinking into the ground. Drop your shoulder and relax your arms and legs, remembering to take slow but deep, rhythmic breaths. If you find other thoughts begin to creep into your mind that is okay. Acknowledge the thought and then mentally release it into the air. Then come back to your point of focus.
The goal here is to isolate any pain to the specific body part. It is easiest to start from the top of your head and work your way down to your toes. While focused on the body part, analyze the feel of that body part. Perhaps it feels heavy. It may be throbbing. Is that body part hot or cold? Maybe it is numb or tingling or burning. Analyze the edges of the body part and slowly explore moving inward. If the pain of that body part is too intense to hold your focus, allow yourself to broaden your focus just a bit to the outer areas of that body part.
Become aware of the sensations of that body part at that specific moment. Remember, mindfulness is about the present moment, here and now.
Acknowledge any pain you may feel in that body part from an analytical perspective. In this moment, you are viewing the pain as an observer, and not as the sufferer. Then allow yourself to mentally release that body part, and move your awareness on to the next body part. Do this over your whole body. Embrace and acknowledge your pain to better understand it.
Once you have completed your body scan, with your eyes remaining closed, imagine your body as a whole unit. Focus on your breathing. Imagine your lungs slowly filling with air and then imagine your lungs slowly releasing the air. Observe the rise and fall of your abdomen. Then count 5 breaths before opening your eyes.
Mindfulness is a powerful tool when used regularly. It can be applied to every aspect of human life. For those who suffer with chronic pain, mindfulness can bring you the gift of control over the way you perceive your pain, as well as a respect and a better understanding of your body and how it is functioning.