Mindfulness and Pain: Just Say Ouch
This article was originally written by Maya Talisman Frost
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What’s the best way to manage pain?
Just say ouch.
That’s a simplified description of the role of mindfulness in reducing the experience of pain. The secret isn’t in focusing on the painful sensation itself. No, the power is in recognizing our tendency to say way more than ouch.
Here’s the basic math: Suffering = Pain + Resistance. Can mindfulness reduce the sensation of pain? Not exactly, but it can markedly reduce the total suffering we experience by illuminating–and even eliminating–our resistance.
Pain is a warning. It informs and motivates us. If you’re resting your hand on a hot stovetop, it’s important to feel that pain in order to remove your hand quickly and avoid burns. We need the sensation of pain to protect our bodies from further injury.
Pain also teaches us new ways to move. If you are consistently hurting your back on the weekend, your pain is letting you know that 1) you need to rest and 2) you need to learn a healthier way to work or play.
Chronic pain is more difficult. It is hard to find any redeeming value in long-term pain. We’ve learned our lessons already, but it persists, and there’s not much that can be done about it.
Mindfulness is extremely valuable in alleviating the experience of all kinds of pain but it is especially effective for those likely to hurt on a daily basis.
We feel pain. We say ouch–mentally or verbally. Then what happens? We get wrapped up in ways to resist the pain. We start a mental dialogue about how we’re going to deal with it (medication, ice, heat, rest, acupuncture, massage, magnetic therapy, etc.). Then, we get caught in thoughts and emotions:
Disappointment (“Now I can’t go hiking.”)
Worry (“I hope it’s nothing serious.”)
Fear (“What if it gets worse?”)
Anger (“Why is it hurting now? I already had surgery!”)
Depression (“What if I have to stop playing tennis?”)
Excitement (“I’m going into labor!”)
Our resistance stirs up a lot more tension, resulting in a much more pronounced experience of the pain. Worrying about pain really does make it worse.
This is where mindfulness comes in. By paying attention to the thoughts and emotions that accompany pain, you can learn to separate these from the sensation. Once you’ve done that, you can actually eliminate the tension and see the pain for what it is–and no more.
By seeing the internal dialogue that comes with pain, you can learn to handle it skillfully and reduce your suffering.
The next time you feel pain, take a moment to focus on it. Watch your thoughts and emotions as they come up. Breathe. And go back to ouch.
Simple pain never felt so good.