01 Jul Using Mindfulness to Reduce Pain
When we’re in pain, we want it to go away. Immediately.
Why won’t this pain just stop? Why won’t these blasted painkillers work anymore?
They’re useless. I’m so sick and tired of this.
And that’s understandable. Chronic pain is frustrating and debilitating.
WHAT IS PAIN?
The common sense view of pain is that it arises from damage to the body. This attitude was formalized in the seventeenth century by the French philosopher René Descartes with his ‘rope-pull’ model of pain: just as pulling a rope in a church steeple ring a bell, Descartes thought that damage to the body is a tug that causes the awareness of pain in the brain.
For centuries after Descartes, doctors regarded pain in a similar light. The intensity of pain was thought to be directly proportional to the degree of damage to the body, which would mean that if different people had the same injury, they would experience the same amount of pain. If no obvious physical cause was found, the patient would be regarded as malingering or making it up.
Since the 1960s, science has come to accept another model of pain known as the ‘Gate Theory’ developed by Ronald Melzack and Patrick Wall. They suggest that there are ‘gates’ in the brain and nervous system that, when open, allow you to experience pain.
In a sense, the body sends a continuous low-level ‘chatter’ of pain signals to the brain, but it is only when the gates are opened that the signals reach your conscious mind. These gates can also close, which is what happens when your pain lessens or fades away.
Opening and closing these pain gates is a phenomenally complex process. Although the details are still being worked out, it is clear that pain is far more subtle and complex than the traditional idea of damage signals being sent to the brain which are then passively felt.
Pain is a sensation, which means that it is an interpretation made by the brain before it is consciously felt. To make this interpretation, the brain fuses together information from the mind as well as the body.
In practice, this means that the thoughts and emotions flowing through your mind, both conscious and unconscious, have a dramatic effect on the intensity of your suffering. Not without reason did the ancient Greek philosophers consider pain to be an emotion.
PRIMARY AND SECONDARY SUFFERING
Suffering occurs on two levels. Firstly, there are the actual unpleasant sensations felt in the body – this is known as ‘Primary Suffering’. This can be seen as the ‘raw data’ that is sent to the brain from, say, an injury, an ongoing illness or changes to the nervous system itself (this is believed to lie, at least partly, behind such conditions as chronic pain syndrome and phantom limb syndrome).
Overlaid on top of this is ‘Secondary Suffering’, which is made up of all the thoughts, feelings, emotions and memories associated with the pain. These might include anxiety, stress, worry, depression, and feelings of hopelessness and exhaustion. The pain and distress that you actually feel is a fusion of both Primary and Secondary Suffering.
This insight is crucial because it reveals a path away from suffering. For if you can learn to tease apart the two flavors of suffering, you can greatly reduce – or even eliminate – your pain and distress. This is because Secondary Suffering tends to dissolve when you observe it with the mind’s compassionate eye.
Mindfulness allows you to see the different elements of pain laid out in front of you. And when you see this vista, something remarkable begins to happen: your suffering gradually begins to subside and evaporate like the mist on a summer’s morning.
MECHANISM BY WHICH MINDFULNESS SUBSIDE PAIN
Mindfulness soothes the mind’s perception of pain – essentially Secondary Suffering – by replacing it with a sense of peace and wholeness. Mindfulness meditation creates a sense of safety, of space, in which you can begin to tentatively explore the raw sensations of pain and, as such, it is the vehicle through which you can begin to accept these messages. And when you do so, you will often find that pain waxes and wanes quite dramatically.
If you are struggling with chronic pain, then you need to try this simple, noninvasive technique, which is an effective approach to reduce chronic pain.