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Why Mindfulness Matters for Pain

Mindfulness meditation is all the rage these days. Proposed as a cure-all for everything from anxiety to pain, it’s rare to find someone who HASN’T heard that it is important to be mindful. The thing is, though, that there is no single fix for chronic pain. Techniques such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, loving-kindness/compassion meditation have an important role to play as a component of comprehensive integrative pain care. An important aspect of mindfulness training comes from learning to come back into our physical bodies that are often neglected with long-term pain. This makes sense, of course. When our bodies ache, our minds make every effort to distract us from that unpleasant experience. Instead, our brains are primed to make our mind wander (this is actually our default, driven by a part of the brain called the Default Mode Network). The challenge with this? It turns out that a wandering mind, pre-occupied by the stories we’ve told ourselves about our past (often in the form of regrets) and worried about the future is one that is predisposed to depression and pain. If this is our default, though, what are we to do?! Well, one of the core benefits of mindfulness and other types of meditation is an increase in something called “meta-awareness”. Simply put, this is the state of “thinking about thinking”. It’s like sitting in a movie theatre and watching the movie (our moment-to-moment lives) WHILE also realizing that we’re in the theatre watching it all unfold. It turns out that the more we do so, the less this mind-wandering reduces our mood. The other factor involved in both chronic pain and low mood is a state of “hyper-vigilance”, where we are on constant alert of the world around us for fear of being harmed in some way. This state is characterized by living mostly in our thoughts, often ignoring our physical bodies. Meditation increases meta-awareness and reduces hyper-vigilance, and both things can help reduce long-term pain by literally changing the structure of our brains. Source: PMID: 28390029

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