Martha Fernandez: Mindfulness meditation can help those living with pain
I used to be a chronic back pain sufferer. I figure skated for 25 years and I sustained two significant back injuries in the course of training. The second required several months of intensive rehabilitative therapy.
The result of this treatment was that I achieved the ability to walk, sit and stand without intense pain. However, I learned to budget my activities. I knew that if I did gardening or yardwork, for instance, I was in for at least a day or two of more severe pain that would command my focus and interfere with my quality of life. I would guard myself from certain postures and avoid bearing weight while doing ordinary things that would hurt (bending forward while brushing my teeth, for instance).
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 cave-people, 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 - we breathe rapidly to oxygenate our blood, blood pressure rises to send the oxygen throughout our bodies and to our brains, muscles become tense and fueled up so we can have the energy to fight or escape, and our guts slow down.
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.
Chronically tense muscles increase our exhaustion and pain from injuries or illnesses. Adding to this difficulty is that, when we begin to grow weary or resentful of feeling severe pain, we start to fear that pain each time it shows up.
Now, we have a “tiger” within ourselves to activate our alarm systems.
Mindfulness meditation is a process that a person learns and practices over and over, 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 pain-free life. A person must also let go of having a pain-free right now. 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. We observe it in this way, as if for the first time.
If we notice fear or anger showing up with our pain, we notice that with curiosity, as well. We remember that each of these things will pass. 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, now, since I have thought of myself as a person with chronic pain. People who are taught to meditate have been shown, in research studies, 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. What I can say, is that pain is no longer a centerpiece in my life.
Dr. Martha Fernandez is a psychologist with Valley Health Systems. For more info, call 304-399-3310.