Chronic Pain and Illness
A 2016 UK study found that approximately 8 million adults report chronic pain that is moderate to severely disabling. From the same report, it is estimated that 43% of adults (just under 28 million people) currently live with a degree of chronic pain. In older age groups this is even higher, with up to 62% of those aged 75 and over reporting chronic pain symptoms.
And yet we are generally at a loss to know how to deal with pain, other than simply trying to mask it with drugs.
Living with pain and illness
Living with a chronic condition means living with it, not in spite of it, not battling with it, but being with our pain, whether that is physical, emotional, or mental pain. And eventually coming to terms with it, accepting it and making peace. Maybe even healing it.
The key word here is eventually. Using Mindfulness and meditation really works; it has dramatic effects, but it is a process. It takes time, commitment and perseverance. But aren’t you worth that time and effort?
Mindfulness and Chronic Pain
Mindfulness is a completely secular (i.e. non-religious) form of meditation which has been shown to be incredibly useful for pain sufferers.
How mindfulness meditation works
There are many theories, here are just a few:
Gate control theory
This theory says that pain signals travel along nerves to the brain, force open the ‘gate’ (imagine it around the base of the skull) and cause us to feel the pain. When the pain signals are frequent the gate stays open and the pain becomes chronic. Of course, it’s a lot more complicated than this, but this is a useful simple model. We can close the gate in several ways, one of which is relaxation (a side-effect of meditation) and another is distraction. Using visualisations or body scans creates both distraction and relaxation.
Choosing how to react to pain
A 2015 study found that all 38 participants in an MBSR course improved in both mental and physical function and continued to improve. The key was found to be a change in their approach to their pain: rather than viewing their conditions as something external happening to them which they had no control over, they began to feel in control over how they reacted to their pain. They realised they had a choice over how they let it make them feel.
Physically reducing symptoms
Stress causes our pain response to become heightened: in a nutshell, stress hormones cause tension in the body and tension makes pain worse. By learning some simple breathing techniques (e.g. slowing the breath down, using a longer out-breath than in-breath to regulate the Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide levels in the blood and slow down the heart rate) and some relaxations, we can reduce stress and tension in the body. The more often we meditate, the more relaxed we become over time as we stimulate the Parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and relaxation response); whilst this system is stimulated the body cannot also stimulate the Sympathetic nervous system (which creates stress hormones – often termed the ‘fight/flight’ response).
More controversially, but gathering support as more research is completed, is the belief that we can heal our physical conditions with the mind. Research into the Placebo effect has shown that not only will a placebo drug stimulate the brain into releasing the proteins necessary for healing but using targeted visualisations can achieve the same result. (See Dr. David R. Hamilton)
So, how much and how often?
Original studies from Massachusetts University found measurable changes within 8 weeks of daily practice of around 40 mins per day. (See Jon Kabat Zinn, Dr. Sara Lazar and Dr. Herbert Benson)
Continuing studies using more sensitive equipment and smaller measures have found that just 6 weeks produces beneficial results.
The most recent studies suggest that just 15 minutes per day for 4 weeks reduces stress, increases happiness and boosts the immune system.
A 2017 eight-week trial by the BBC and the University of Westminster, for the programme Trust Me I’m A Doctor, showed it was better than gardening and yoga at helping people to relax.
All studies agree that the important thing is just to do it
Whether you are persuaded by science or just desperation, try it. Even 5 minutes a day of mindful breathing will be more than you were doing before and will begin to de-stress your body.
Find an app, a book, an online tutorial, a guided meditation or a teacher-led course, obviously I would recommend the latter, but some people do find what they need online, and enjoy a new and exciting challenge which is both stimulating and healing.
How I can help
With personal experience of using mindfulness to manage a painful, chronic condition combined with nearly thirty years' experience of teaching meditation in various forms I offer a choice of classes, workshops and individual coaching. See details of these on the 'classes and workshops' page.
Contact me to discuss your needs or arrange a one-to-one session at £35 per hour. Special Offer: half-price first session if booked before April 30th.