Mindfulness meditation can help with your pain
I used to suffer from chronic back pain. I was a figure skater for 25 years and I suffered two significant back injuries in the course of training. The second required several months of intensive rehabilitative therapy.
The treatment allowed me to walk, sit and stand without intense pain. However, I learned to budget my activities. I knew that if I did gardening or yard work, for instance, I was in for at least a day or two of more severe pain that would interfere with my quality of life. I would guard myself from certain postures and avoid bearing weight while doing ordinary things that would hurt.
When it would interfere too much with my functioning, I would visit chiropractors, who explained to me that as a result of my earlier injuries my spine had developed osteoarthritis, which created spinal stenosis. They told me that with interminable regular visits (which my insurance did not cover), and certain exercises and stretches, we could halt its progression.
And so I came to know myself as a Chronic Back Pain Sufferer.
Our brains developed to keep us alive and keep our species going by, in part, equipping us with a sophisticated alarm system.
As cavepeople, if we encountered a tiger, our brains would send out urgent signals to our bodies to escape or fight for our lives. Our nervous system becomes charged up. Presumably, if all goes well, we escape the tiger or fight him off, and our brains switch off all these mechanisms — we calm down.
Our brains also developed the ability to anticipate future tigers and dwell on thoughts of previous ones, so as to avoid danger. Unfortunately, these thoughts of future and past reactivate those alarm systems over and over again, even when we are safe in the present moment. Not only does this make us feel terrible much of the time, but it tends to increase physical problems, including our experience of pain.
Mindfulness meditation is a process that a person learns to train their brain to experience things as they are, including their pain, emotional reactions and thoughts. The effects of mindfulness do not come by knowing how it works. The effects are gained according to the amount of practice that a person does. Some of the effects include increased focus, awareness, joy and capacity to bear pain.
In order to achieve these things, a person has to let go of the goal of having a painfree life. Insistence on making pain go away will inevitably increase your pain and misery.
We change our relationship with the pain of just this one moment. We do not run from pain or judge it as either good or bad; we notice it, instead, with interest and curiosity.
If we notice fear or anger showing up with our pain, we notice that with curiosity, as well. Our understanding of the coming and going of pain, fear, anger, grief and joy helps us to recommit to fully experiencing each, in this moment.
It has been some years since I have thought of myself as a person with chronic pain. People who are taught to meditate have been shown to report lower levels of pain to the same stimulus than those not trained. It may be I no longer perceive pain in the same way. I do know that when pain inevitably arises in my life, my emotional response is very different. I can say that pain is no longer a centerpiece in my life.
Dr. Martha Fernandez is a psychologist with Valley Health Systems. Call 304-399-3310.