By Nanci Nilles, Psy.D.
Chronic pain has emerged as a major health concern in the last decade. In the past, medication was the go to remedy for pain. Now the standard of care includes medical guidance with lifestyle change, particularly stress reduction. In this context meditation has gained popularity as an effective way to cope with pain.
How can meditation address chronic pain?
It's helpful to understand chronic pain as having a primary and secondary source. The primary source of pain is the actual illness or disruption in physical functioning. An example is degenerative disc disease or a migraine headache.
The secondary source is the mind's reactions to the primary source of pain. The mind naturally hones in on intense experiences such as pain. It analyzes the pain by comparing the present experience to past experience. The goal of this comparison is to find a solution to the current problem of pain.
However, with chronic pain, the sufferer may have a disportionately large reservoir of negative memories of unresolved pain. This analysis does not yield an effective solution, rather it may flood the sufferer with negative associations. This entire complex cognitive process takes place automatically, and may actually amplify pain (Penman 2014.)
Here is the good news: Meditation addresses the cognitive functions behind secondary pain.
Imaging and scans show brain structures actually change with the regular practice of mediation. Specifically, a regular consistent practice of meditation appears to increase gray matter density and neural activity in the areas of the brain associated with attention, working memory, problem solving and emotional regulation. Additionally, brain scans show regular meditators have decreased activity in the brain regions associated with the fight or flight response (Goldstein 2012.)
It is no wonder people with chronic pain who meditate on a regular basis experience decreased pain. Some have described feeling empowered when they can detach from their pain. Others find meditating helps them to accept their pain instead of fighting it. Most encouraging is small consistent efforts with meditation can make a big difference. Meditating may not take the pain away; but it can empower a person's ability to manage it.
Learn more about using Mindfulness to address chronic pain with Dr. Nilles this fall. Stay tuned for more information!