Amanda Neckar, L.C.S.W.
Family Medicine, Psychiatry & Psychology
Mindfulness has become a popular concept. Frequently thought of as a way to manage stress and improve focus, mindfulness practice can provide many benefits. But what is mindfulness really?
According to John Kabat-Zinn, a leader in mindfulness practice, "Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally." Mindfulness principles and practices have been proven to help people manage symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. There also has been extensive research on the effectiveness of mindfulness as a tool for chronic pain management.
The American Academy of Pain Medicine reports that nearly 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain, which is pain that persists. It can occur after an injury or without apparent damage or previous injury to the body. The most common type of chronic pain is low back pain, followed by migraine and headache pain, neck and facial pain. Living with chronic pain can have a significant impact on a person's relationships and quality of life, as well as physical and mental health. It can also affect mobility, independence and ability to work. It is common for people with chronic pain also to have symptoms of depression, anxiety and increased stress. People living with chronic pain often struggle with effectively managing pain while actively participating in life.
Managing chronic pain with mindfulness
There is increasing evidence that regular mindfulness practice reduces a person's pain experience. In 2015, Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., and his colleagues conducted a study to investigate the effectiveness of mindfulness practice in pain management. Brain images of participants who received mindfulness as treatment had less activation in the parts of their brains that manage pain messages. Their research also has shown that some participants have been able to reduce and, sometimes, eliminate the use pain medications through ongoing daily mindfulness practice, though this is not always the case for all.
Mindfulness exercises help people to focus their mind and body in the moment without judgment. Daily mindfulness practice can be helpful for people living with chronic pain because sometimes there are negative or worrisome thoughts about the pain. These thoughts are normal, and can affect mood and increase pain. Being able to focus on relaxing the body, noticing the breath and body sensations as being there just as they are, can help manage pain, as well as reduce depression and anxiety symptoms.
Getting started with mindfulness
While it can be helpful to work with a mindfulness practitioner or psychotherapist to learn the concept of mindfulness, resources have become widely available to the public. There are several books, CDs, and smartphone and tablet apps available for free or for purchase that help you learn and use mindfulness meditation to manage pain and other conditions. Many mindfulness practitioners have programs specifically for pain management, as well as generalized resources available for purchase through online retailers or your local bookstore.
You also can access mindfulness exercises online. YouTube and other online resources can provide a variety of ways to adopt a mindfulness practice. I often recommend that if they are new to mindfulness, people visit YouTube to try different mindfulness exercises before purchasing resources. Mayo Clinic Connect is an online resource that offers resources and information on mindfulness, as well as a number of other topics and health conditions. Mayo Clinic Connect provides access to resources from the Mindful Breathing Lab, which offers free audio mindfulness exercises.
If you'd prefer to experience mindfulness in a group setting, local community agencies offer mindfulness retreats, workshops and therapy groups throughout the year. These can be a great way to experience guided mindfulness meditation led by an experienced facilitator.
Giving mindfulness a try
There are many ways to access information on mindfulness, thanks to growing popularity and modern technology. While mindfulness is a helpful tool, there are many options for support while living with chronic pain. As a psychotherapist, I have had the opportunity to work with a number of people who are living with chronic pain. In my work, I encourage people to approach mindfulness with an open and inquisitive mind. Mindfulness has been an important tool I've used to help people manage the impacts of pain. It has been a privilege to accompany people on their journey toward actively participating in a life with chronic pain. If you're living with pain, mindfulness could be a helpful tool for you.Amanda Neckar is a licensed clinical social worker in Behavioral Health in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.