Pain management, typically utilized for those suffering from chronic pain issues, is popular for those choosing not to use narcotics for pain relief. According to a recent study mindfulness, a practice I speak of often has now been scientifically proven to help those suffering from chronic pain. As I’ve previously shared, I too suffer from chronic pain and so know how well mindfulness works for me, and how well it works for my clients.
Pain management, when coupled with mindfulness, does not take away the pain, but the focus is on learning how best, healthily, to cope with the pain. Mindfulness does not ignore the miseries of life, it allows us to embrace the pain, recognize the pain, and then deal with the pain. A goal of mindfulness is to more fully understand all aspects of life, the good, bad, or otherwise.
The definition of mindfulness that I use is the standard definition touted by the scholar Jon Kabat-Zinn: “a means of paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” In this definition, there is no mention of focusing only on the positives in life, but to pay attention to the present moment. How I experience the present moment is what’s to be examined and lived. The present moment is the only moment in time wherein we can choose how to react, to respond, to the world around us.
A recent article from Forbes entitled “In pain? Mindfulness Can Help” written by Clary Estes talks about a research study from Yale, Columbia, and Dartmouth outlining the benefits of mindfulness in reducing pain. This has the potential to help the pain management community. The study was published in the journal “Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience” from Oxford Academic titled “Let it be: Mindful-acceptance down-regulates pain and negative emotion”. As Estes writes in the Forbes article: “What is interesting about the study is that the benefits of mindfulness extend to both physical and emotional pain and even a superficial introduction to mindfulness practices has proven to help the participant with pain management.”
The participants in the study practiced 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation and self-reported less pain and negative emotions as a result. The researchers are quick to note that “neurological changes did not occur in the prefrontal cortex, which regulates conscious or rational decision-making, and so were not the result of conscious willpower.”
In other words, according to the study, mindfulness practices make changes in the brain itself, not merely a change based on what we want or believe to happen. Doing meditation for 20 minutes a day actually changes our brain, causing us to improve our thoughts and behaviors.
This study reminds me of an earlier study done by Harvard and published in 2016. In that research, it was discovered that mindful meditation, done daily, creates new grey matter in the brain after only 30 days. For details on that study, click here.
So, what does all of this research mean for each of us? It means that for pain management, learning to use mindfulness and meditation will eventually change your life.
Once we accept our reality of pain and desire a different future existence, then we need to take action. We can’t sit still waiting for change to happen to us. Change happens when we take action to effect change. Do something, such as meditation or speaking with someone trained in mindfulness, which will change your current reality. While you are taking action, don’t selfishly focus on yourself, but help others in their pursuit of a different future. Together we can effect real change. Assisting others provides us with positive self-esteem, and that positive feeling feeds our continued desire to make changes in life. As humans, we are communal creatures, so in helping others better themselves, you also help yourself.
Social connectedness is what I feel is the key to a life of recovery from addiction. Social connectedness is that which holds us, as a society, together in support of each other. We function as a group of individuals in our ability to sense and believe in social connectedness. But what happens when I lose that sense of connectedness? What happens when society chooses not to allow some people to regain their connectedness?
Social connectedness is an issue I’ve seen during the past 20 years I’ve witnessed the disease of addiction manifest itself in many people, thousands probably.The textbooks and courses I studied were beneficial in theory. Those with whom I counseled taught me everything about what addiction means to them. They taught me why they’re addicted, what makes it so challenging to live a life of recovery, and why is it so difficult to stop doing what they’re doing.
As I begin this reflection on my understanding of addiction, let’s start with a pet peeve of mine. Through the years many people have questioned me “why don’t they just stop?” Let’s think through this question for a moment. Of the thousands of people that I’ve dealt with who suffer from this disease of addiction no one, I mean no one, ever said to me that their life goal was to be addicted. No one ever told me that they loved the life that they were leading while in active addiction.
Everyone at one point or another during treatment would reveal to me that they do want to stop and that they’ve tried multiple times to stop. But something was blocking them from stopping. If this were just willpower alone, don’t you think that at some point someone thought to themself, “maybe I should just stop.”
Disease of Addiction
Regardless of your personal view about addiction, it has been classified as a medical disease. In 1957 the American Medical Association classifies addiction as a disease “not unlike any other medical disease.” For some reason that classification didn’t take hold in our society or even the totality of the professionals. But again, just because a person believes that addiction is a willpower issue doesn’t make them correct. For me, I’m following the AMA, whose definition and classification has remained unchanged for over 60 years!
Not only has the definition stood the test of time, but the definition of 1957 has also been reaffirmed by modern science. There’s a high number of research within the last couple of decades explaining the chemical changes in the body and the chemical changes in the brain happening to those suffering from this disease. Since there are body changes and adaptations as a direct result of a person’s addiction, then the addiction is a medical, body disease not unlike any other medical body disease. Conditions causing bodily adaptations and neurologic changes are hardly a force of willpower.
Coming from the unfortunate view of willpower, complicated by the illegality of some actions, society tends to treat those with addiction as “less than.” Society stigmatizes the person, their actions, they’re attempts at recovery. We end up treating people suffering from a medical disease by penalizing them, throwing them into the judicial system, and kicking them out of treatment programs for failures and relapses.
But recall, we are doing this to people suffering from a disease not unlike any other medical disease! (AMA, 1957)
Heart Disease Analogy
Allow me a moment to use an analogy between the treatment of a person suffering from a medical disease, heart disease, and another person suffering from a medical disease, substance addiction.
When a person suffers a heart attack, they are rushed to the ER for immediate care, as they should be. Once stabilized, the doctor provides the patient with a treatment plan of life changes: take your medicine, change your diet, exercise, avoid stress. The patient is informed that if they choose not to follow these directions, they may have another heart attack (a relapse).
But unfortunately, it’s not easy to make a lifestyle change, and they start to falter a bit, eventually not doing what the doctor advised. Their choice to stop doing what they were told leads to another heart attack and another trip to the ER. The process is repeated time and time with no stigma placed on the person, and very little blame placed upon for the multiple relapses. As a society, we give them a pass since they have a disease, and making a lifestyle change isn’t easy.
Yet, a person who overdoses on narcotics is rushed to the hospital, treated, and recovers are told before discharge that to avoid another overdose, they need to make some lifestyle changes: stop using drugs, see a counselor, go to support meetings. They are advised that if they don’t, they risk another overdose. These instructions are not that different from the heart attack victim. And both patients are told that their choice to follow or not follow the directives of the doctor will affect their outcome.
Yet, if the person overdoses again, they will be stigmatized, lectured, and over time, banned from treatment facilities for “non-compliance.” Both patients were admitted to an ER, both were medically treated, both were given treatment plans for lifestyle change, and both informed that failure to make those life changes could result in a relapse. What’s the difference!?
A reason people tend to use drugs or alcohol in an addictive manner is that they don’t feel connected to society, family, or to others. Therefore, we as professionals and a society need to guide them back into a feeling of connectedness in a healthy way.
We need to reconnect them to society, with family, friends, and support groups. Yet what we as a society tend to do is continue the disconnection. We place them outside of society through stigmatization, incarceration, refusing them treatment, making it difficult to obtain employment while in active recovery. As such, that lack of connectedness is reinforced, and supportive recovery stunted.
Those who, in active addiction, are picked up by law enforcement on certain drug charges will now have a felony record. When released from jail and attempting to make a change in life, they find out quickly that most employers won’t hire a person with a felony charge. So much for the attempt at being a productive member of society. Once again, the person, now in recovery, is stigmatized and disconnected from society. Recall that both of these factors are contributors to relapse.
I don’t have all the answers, but what I know is that what we’re currently doing to help people with addiction is not working. Social connectedness is needed as the key to bringing about a healthy, productive recovery. This requires a societal change. Are we willing to make this change?