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.
Unfortunately, many people struggle with chronic pain management, as do I. Over time I’ve gained insights into what techniques work for me and which don’t work. Much of the content of my life coaching message comes from my personal pain management struggles. One thing I have learned with certainty, there are ways to manage pain and discover pain relief daily.
Pain, whether it be physical or emotional, is unavoidable. As I write this, about seven years ago I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, an overall body pain due to overstimulated nerves. It took a while to find that diagnosis and a couple of years more to find the right combination of medications. I’ve reflected much on pain and how best to live with chronic pain, gaining insights into chronic pain management, yet the learning continues.
We try our best to avoid pain, almost at all costs. Personally and as a society, we make every effort imaginable to avoid, end, or numb, all pain. Yet, the more we try, I feel the more we end up still in pain and not feeling at peace or happy. According to the US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, “In 2012, health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for opioid pain medication, enough for every adult in the United States to have a bottle of pills.” This reality is one of the reasons we have the current opioid crisis as narcotic pain medicines are addictive, even when taken as prescribed. Yet there’s a better way to deal with the pain rather than medicating our way out of it.
In my experience, I ask what I feel is the central question “Why do we feel pain?” Maybe if we understood the “why” we would better understand how best to cope with pain.
According to Barbara Finlay “The basic function of pain is the same for all vertebrates: it alerts an animal to potential damage and reduces activity after trauma.” In other words, pain is necessary as it alerts us to a problem we need to address. For example, continuing to walk on a broken leg causes more damage to the leg. The pain of the fractured leg forces us to stop and adequately deal with the break. The same is true when we are feeling emotional pain, all too common for us who live with chronic pain. Our emotional pain warns us that we need to take care of ourself by pausing to deal with the cause of the pain. If we choose to ignore the root cause of our emotional pain, as with our physical pain, we will live thinking and feeling in unhealthy ways, never feeling better or at peace.
So why is it that we spend copious amounts of energy and money to avoid pain? If pain is necessary for our physical and emotional well being, why do we fight so hard to get rid of it? Don’t misinterpret what I am saying, for I am not saying pain itself is to be desired! Instead, I am saying that pain is a part of our life, and so learning to cope with pain instead of numbing or avoiding pain will lead us to physical and emotional health and peace.
In an article titled “How To Stop Using Hunger To Numb Your Emotions,” a podcast guest of mine, Brandilyn Tebo writes: “I fundamentally believed that I was not allowed to have what I really wanted until I proved that I was’ worthy’ enough. So I would rather numb my desires than feel them because not feeling anything was easier than wanting the fulfillment that I couldn’t have.”
Brandilyn’s description of numbing her pain hits close to home. Daily chronic pain takes a toll on us emotionally as we physically struggle with everyday tasks, while at the same time wondering why we’re different, why me, why this? The feelings and thoughts we have are meant to be felt so that we can find meaning out of our suffering.
Suffering without meaning is a waste, but suffering, when we allow it to teach us leads us more deeply into ourselves. We begin to understand that we too have a place in the world; we also have a purpose. Finding our purpose gives us a reason to keep going!
Our (my) desire to not feel tricks us into believing that life is somehow more comfortable. But in not feeling we aren’t coping with the deeper issue, we’re simply ignoring the pain. As we numb the pain, we take away our power to cope with our pain, and healing doesn’t take place. Not unlike a broken leg numbing the pain does not heal the leg nor deal with the cause or issue of our suffering.
Learning how best to cope with pain is not easy, but is doable and essential if we wish to feel peace, happiness, and freedom. Those times when my pain is so intense that I literally can’t get out of bed or get to work are not just physically painful. Realizing that I can’t do what I used to do because of some stupid illness turns the frustration to anger, an anger I turn on myself until it morphs into a depressive pitty party. This is a dark place many of us know all too well.
Yet, when we find purpose and meaning in our life, those times of intense pain and darkness can be pushed aside, replaced by the desire to regain my power so I can fulfill my purpose. I know, trust me, that this is easier said than done, as it demands an inner strength to replace the darkness with the light of a life lived on my terms, not the illness’ terms.
Here a few strategies I have learned which help me cope with my pain:
- Acknowledge the pain. Avoid the temptation to numb the pain. Instead, recognize that the pain is telling you something. Reflect on the cause of the pain and look at ways you can change your thoughts and emotions about the pain.
- Realize that you are not alone. Understand that what you are experiencing is also experienced by many others. There is no pain that only one person in this entire world suffers from. Seek out others who daily struggle with coping from a similar illness. Console and aid each other. When we help others, we feel better about ourselves. Seek out support groups, online sites, chat rooms, etc.
- Embrace your true self. Acknowledge to yourself that you aren’t perfect and that there are aspects of yourself in need of improvement. Yet, at the same time, there are aspects of yourself which are good and healthy. No one is perfect; we all have our flaws. Embrace that which you wish to numb, then do the work needed to make changes in your life. “I thought that if I allowed the rejected parts of myself to be expressed, that I would lose myself. What I discovered was that only through facing and eventually embracing these parts of myself did I truly find myself.” (Brandilyn Tebo)
There is so much more I could say about pain and my experiences, but for the goal of this article, I’d like to end with a quote from the author and priest Henri Nouwen: “Consolation is a beautiful word. It means “to be” (con-) “with the lonely one.” To console does not mean to take away the pain but rather to be there and say, “You are not alone, I am with you. Together we can carry the burden. Don’t be afraid. I am here.” That is consolation. We all need to give it as well as to receive it.”