Change the perception of aches and pains with mindfulness
Having now practiced as an Osteopath on the island of Guernsey for the last 12 months, I have had the fortunate experience of treating many different aches and pains. Every case has been unique in its presentation, however, it has been interesting to observe how one commonality- the stress response, affects each individual when pain is experienced.
The complex cascade of events involved in our response to a stressful experience such as pain is designed to get us out of harms way as quickly as possible and assist the healing process. The immediate response can blunt our perception of pain due to the release of endorphins, and sharpen our cognitive and sensory skills in order to maximize our chance of getting away from danger. However, when pain hangs around and leads to continual stressful thoughts worries and fear, our ability to heal can be compromised and the experience of pain intensified. Continuous stress can increase the sensitivity of the nervous system over time, making even the most innocuous of sensations feel terrible.
When we experience pain, our emotional response can influence our perception of it. All pain is modulated by the central nervous system (brain and spinal chord), and is a result of the information received via physical sensations such as movement, tissue damage, and temperature changes as well as cognitive input such as emotions, thoughts and memories. If the information received is significant enough to be perceived as a threat, pain can be produced and amplified, in order to encourage us to take protective action.
By moderating our emotional response to pain or injury we can help reduce the traffic of threatening information to the brain and subsequently influence the intensity of pain perceived. Practicing the skill of mindfulness is an effective way of being able to experience thoughts, feelings and physical discomfort, with less emotional input. Pain is a multi-sensory and subjective experience that relies on context. Mindfulness helps us witness uncomfortable experiences and thoughts within a context that is less judgemental and subsequently less catastrophic, with the aim of simply observing them without the rollercoaster of emotion that so often ensues.
Pain is designed to encourage us take more action not become more passive
My experience so far with patients suffering from persistent musculoskeletal pain is that some cope and recover better by modifying their response to pain with skills such as mindfulness, which subsequently creates the confidence and reassurance to become more physically active. On the other hand, less active patients often become reliant upon medication, develop unhelpful beliefs about their discomfort and go round in circles trying to seek resolution through passive treatment.
Both pain and the stress response are vital evolutionary survival mechanisms that motivate us to take action, so by participating in effective strategies such as mindfulness and regular movement, we can both change the experience of pain and also significantly reduce the negative impact that it has on daily life. Below is a simple mindfulness exercise that you can use to reduce the emotional burden of musculoskeletal pain. I also recommend downloading the headspace app to your smartphone which enables you to practice guided and themed mindfulness exercises on the go.
Try this simple mindfulness exercise
- Find a comfortable place to sit. It can be on a chair or on the floor. Try to assume a relaxed and neutral posture without slumping or feeling rigid
- Begin by softening your gaze, taking 5-6 gentle deep breathes and then gently closing your eyes.
- Concentrate your attention completely on your breathing. Become aware of the sensations inside your air passages as the air enters the nose. Just become aware of that feeling as your breath goes in and out. Do not attempt to influence your breathing, just let it happen naturally.
- Now gently transfer your focus to your body. Gently scan down from head to toe, noticing any areas of tension or effort. As you do this, notice the contact between your body and surfaces you’re in contact with. Simply marvel at the quality and precision of any sensations that you notice in your body without judgement, opinion or analysis. Just allow yourself time to be aware of your body before slowly returning to gently focus on the breath.
- Thoughts will inevitably come into your mind and that’s perfectly fine. Just observe them as if you were sat in a cinema watching a movie or as if the thoughts were a beautiful animal that had just wandered into your sight. As easily as the thoughts come into your mind, allow them to wander off and wish them well on their way. Do not follow or get involved in the thought. Just notice that it is there and gently return your focus to your breathing. Treat each thought as a guest. When a thought or feeling arises, simply observe and acknowledge it. There is no need to interpret it or to use it. You might wonder where it came from, what caused it to surface now, what purpose it serves. If you feel yourself drifting away on a thought then gently return to your breathing. Use your breathing as the anchor to bring you back when your mind wanders off with thoughts.
- Notice repetitive thoughts. As you progress you will come to recognize that the same thoughts appear over and over again. Let them pass by, returning your attention to your breath.
- Practice being present as long as you can, starting with 5 mins. With more practice you will be able to increase the duration.