Do you suffer from chronic pain due to chronic fatigue syndrome, arthritis, fibromyalgia, gastrointestinal issues or other autoimmune conditions? Have you ever wondered if meditation could help ease your chronic pain? Well, there is promising news: mindfulness meditation may be the answer to help alleviate your pain.
I am a firm believer that many physical ailments, such as chronic pain, arise from chronic psychological stress. By definition, stress is any uncomfortable “emotional experience accompanied by predictable biochemical, physiological and behavioral changes”. While many forms of stress can be beneficial to our bodies, severe, chronic stressors can increase the vulnerability of new disease or worsen existing ones.
How Can Mindfulness Meditation Help?
Meditation is commonly used for stress reduction and relaxation. Many variations of meditation exist, but all involve a quiet location, specific posture, a focus of attention, and an open attitude. Mindfulness meditation is a form of meditation that has been used to help people manage chronic disease and pain conditions. Techniques that are used in mindfulness meditation include body scan (participants lay down and focus their attention nonjudgmentally on each body part from the toes to the top of the head), sitting practice (attention is focused on breathing while sitting in a chair or on the floor), and walking meditation (slow walking with focused attention on body sensation and breathing).
This form of meditation has been found to reduce the intensity of pain as well as increase mood and function, improve attention, improve sleep and overall well-being. It involves focusing one’s attention on the experience of one’s thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations, accepting them, and allowing them to arise and dissolve, in a nonjudgmental way. For example, during the practice of mindfulness meditation, as troubling thoughts enter your mind (such as “I really have to get those papers organized in the office” or “how will I ever enjoy hiking again with this back pain?”), acknowledge them, consciously let those thoughts go, and bring your attention back to your breathing.
This type of mind-body practice can enhance physical self-monitoring and body awareness, leading to improved body function and improved self-care. One way, in particular, mindfulness meditation has helped me in a stressful situation was just last year. In preparation of my daughter’s graduation party, I escaped to my bedroom for a few minutes to practice mindfulness meditation because I could feel my stress level and anxiety rising. Afterward, I felt more calm and everything seemed to be more manageable for me. While that situation wasn’t related to reducing pain, it did reduce my stress which improved my overall well-being.
Mindfulness meditation has helped people have a heightened awareness of their pain leading to behavior change and better coping strategies for the pain. For example, in a study conducted in The Journal of Pain (Morone, 2008), one participant who used mindfulness meditation stated, “When I was able to concentrate I had a great experience. The only time I had a sensation is when I was concentrating on my lower back. I felt like something was happening to that section of my body and . . . the pain would disappear.”
I would recommend mindfulness meditation not only for its promising effects for pain reduction, but also for improving attention skills, mood elevation, sleep, overall well-being and quality of life. Another benefit of mindfulness meditation is that it aims to reduce reactivity to stressful thoughts and feelings that can ultimately increase the pain. One of the best things about this type of meditation is the benefits are gained in a relatively short period of time. Ten minutes a day is all you need and it can be practiced anywhere at any time!
A Better Alternative
We all experience pain, and as we get older pain can be difficult to treat. If you are like me and are opposed to pharmaceutical intervention, preferring a more holistic approach, mindfulness meditation is a great alternative to conventional methods of pain management. When conventional medicine doesn’t provide relief, people seek alternative treatments, and meditation is at the top of the list of alternative therapies. So why not start there to begin with? Mindfulness meditation is especially promising for older adults who frequently are limited to the kinds of pain therapy they can receive due to unwanted side effects from pharmaceuticals. Mindfulness meditation has no unwanted side effects.
Chronic pain and autoimmune diseases can cause a tremendous amount of psychological stress, which in turn results in a loss of enjoyment of life. Given the mind’s ability to influence health, mindfulness meditation can be used together with chronic disease management to optimize health and pain reduction. When we learn how to balance the emotional piece then the pain becomes much less troubling. It’s been well documented that emotional stress is one of the most significant causes of all chronic health issues, so keeping our emotional stress in balance should be a priority. So what can you do to effectively manage emotional stressors in your life and prevent them from creating additional health problems and/or increasing chronic pain?
- Spend time in prayer and meditation.
- Make sure you are getting the nutrients you need for a healthy nervous system, such as B vitamins, Vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids.
- Keep a journal, and be honest with yourself. Honest journal writing can help you get to the root causes of what is causing your anger, sadness, frustration, anxiety and other negative emotions.
- Move your body. Regular exercise helps with depression and keeps your emotions in balance.
The practice of mindfulness meditation is becoming a very important part of pain management programs and one you should consider starting with if a holistic approach to pain management is what you desire. One way to get you off to a great start is use a meditation app such as “Headspace”. This app is a guided meditation program that you can download for free that uses proven meditation and mindfulness techniques. In just 10 minutes a day you’ll be well on your way of learning the basics of meditation and how it can improve your life, keep your emotions in balance and improve your overall well-being.
 Baum, A. (1990). Stress, Intrusive Imagery, and Chronic Distress. Health Psychology, 6, 653-675.
 Morone, N., Lynch, C., Greco, C., Tindle, H., & Weiner, D. (2008). “I felt like a new person.” The effects of mindfulness meditation on older adults with chronic pain: qualitative narrative -analysis of diary entries. The Journal of Pain, 9 (9), 841-848.
 Purdy, J. (2013). Chronic Physical Illness: a psychophysiological approach for chronic physical illness. Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 86, 5-28.
 Rosenzweig, S., Greeson, J., Reibel, D., Green, J., Jasser, S., & Beasley, D. (2010). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for chronic pain conditions: variation in treatment outcomes and role of home meditation practice. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 68, 29-36.