Does Mindfulness Actually Help Chronic Pain?

This summer I have been more actively thinking about pain management. I have been thinking about it from the framework of this question: what does it look like to create a life that can be successfully lived around the pain?

I have spent the last five years moving directly through the pain because I had to if I wanted to reach my goal of counseling licensure. It was exhausting. It was emotionally and physically and mentally draining. It was necessary at the time, but in terms of actually managing the pain it wasn’t a good strategy. And honestly, it’s not something I could realistically maintain long-term if living a somewhat balanced and healthy life is at all important to me. Which it is.

Now that that season of life is behind me, I am contemplating a more long-term approach. I have absolutely zero regrets of pushing my body past it’s limit at times to reach my goal. It was the right decision at the time. And maybe it will be the right decision again sometime in the future. But, now I think things have changed. Now, I think the right decision is to pull back and see if my body can regain some health and strength if I stop pushing it to the edge and past the edge over and over again.

This summer I have been very careful about pacing myself. It’s going pretty well. I can feel my pain levels falling a bit, while also managing to do a bit more throughout the week. My exercises are progressing some, and I feel a little stronger. I am walking an average of 800 steps further each day than I was about 6 months ago. That feels like a big deal.

I felt discouraged as I left my last doctor’s appointment earlier this summer because we finished the appointment without a plan. The last thing I said to my doctor was that nothing was going to change if I didn’t do something different. And I didn’t know what different thing to try. She agreed. But said she also wasn’t sure what the next step was.

Somewhere along the way, as I was thinking about “doing something different” I thought of mindfulness.

I think it came to mind because one of the things that has helped me the most in the last year is learning to ground myself in the present. Over time, I have become better at bringing my thoughts and feelings into the present moment and lingering there instead of fearing the future or mourning the past. Grounding myself in the here and now has taken away a great deal of my anxiety regarding my pain. And as many people pointed out when I posted about this, what I was really doing in those moments was practicing a form of mindfulness.

Last week I bought a book called You Are Not Your Pain – Using Mindfulness to Relieve Pain, Reduce Stress, and Restore Well-being. I started reading through it, and I plan to practice the 8-week program they lead you through in the book.

I chose this specific book after reading a blog post by one of the authors, Danny Penman. In this post, Danny talks about the difference between primary pain and secondary pain:

After a while you come to the profound realisation that pain comes in two forms: Primary and Secondary. Each of these has very different causes – and understanding this gives you far greater control over your suffering.

Primary pain arises from illness, injury or damage to the body or nervous system. You could see it as the raw information sent by the body to the brain. Secondary pain is the mind’s reaction to Primary pain but is often far more intense and long lasting. Crucially, it is controlled by an ‘amplifier’ in the brain that governs the overall intensity of suffering.

I found this differentiation helpful. We can’t necessarily control the primary pain, but we do have a say when it comes to secondary pain. This concept of primary and secondary pain is discussed more in the book. Part of the concept of the book is that mindfulness is a means to help you control secondary pain, which can reduce a person’s overall experience of suffering by a great deal.

The book takes you through an 8-week mindfulness program. Each week it introduces a new type of meditation that it asks you to do 6 out of 7 days of the week. The first week is a body scan meditation, which I have started doing over the past couple of days. Although the book includes a CD of audio meditations, for convenience sake, I have been using an app on my iPhone called Calm. This app has the same types of meditations discussed in the book, but with a different script.

We’ll see how it goes. If nothing else, I am curious. I can’t say that anything mind-blowing has happened after a few days of meditation. If nothing else, it makes me feel relaxed in the moments afterwards.

Depending on how things go, I will write some updates along the way to document how mindfulness helps or doesn’t help me.

So, does mindfulness actually help chronic pain? Research says yes. I’m very interested to find out for myself. If anyone wants to practice along with me to see if it’s helpful for you, let me know!

(This post contains affiliate links, which help this blog. If you click on any affiliate link and purchase an item, no matter what it is, this blog receives a small percentage of the purchase cost. I only recommend items that I personally use and have found to be helpful.) 

1 Comment

  1. Hi Esther, another great post. Wow, 800 steps more a day is a big deal. You can do so much more in 800 steps. It’s progress and even if you have to progress at one or ten more steps at a time, it’s meaningful in the end compared to not starting ever or going gonzo and losing the ability to walk period.
    Also congrats on giving yourself that vacation still. Many would just start doing too much again. That’s another thing to celebrate. I think using your time now to recalibrate, find your real healthy pace is amazing.

    I’m glad you are giving mindfulness a go through an 8 week program. Research says that’s how long it takes to see more lasting changes in the brain when they have made MRI of people using it. My hubby loves Calm app as well. 🙂
    When you quoted “Primary pain arises from illness, injury or damage to the body or nervous system. ” I thought right away how that part about the nervous system in primary pain is directly linked to why it works well: pain is the nervous system gone wacko and that’s why many techniques that focus people on calming it down help. Now, many take that to mean that only their method works or pseudoscience like Efm work when I fact if you look at the way they “treat people” it’s just a way to calm them down I another form than meditation. With mindfulness though, they won’t charge you more than a book or CD to help you practice s nervous system stress reducer. And that’s the beauty both physically and scientifically for the patients who try. And psychologically it also does notmake the assumption it’s your fault or you have bad energy you are hanging on to or such.
    I’ve been doing more just this week to fall asleep when I wake at 1am and it’s funny how just this morning I was thankful for mindfulness to have allowed me to sleep longer.
    Take care

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