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Harvard Health Blog
5 ways to ease pain using the mind-body connection
- By Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter
I smashed my elbow a few weeks ago. There was no bone break — just a bad bruise after slipping in the kitchen and landing on my arm — but at times the pain has been excruciating. So I’ve been following doctor’s orders: babying my elbow, icing it, and taking an occasional over-the-counter painkiller. (PS: I wear sneakers in the kitchen now.)
Something else has helped, too: mind-body therapies. These approaches aim to change our awareness of pain and retrain the way we respond to it. The therapies can help us control pain — such as long-lasting back pain — or live with it better. While these techniques won’t erase pain, they can help change perception of pain intensity through distraction, relaxation, and reframing our thoughts.
Five mind-body therapies to consider for pain relief
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This talk therapy teaches people to redirect their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in response to chronic pain. For example, when a pain flare-up strikes, instead of bracing yourself and thinking, “Oh no, here it comes again,” tell yourself you’ve handled this before, and focus instead on your favorite place in the world: picture it in your mind, and feel how happy or relaxed you are when you’re there. A therapist trained in CBT can train you to hone your skills.
Deep breathing. We typically take short little breaths without noticing our breathing, especially when we’re in pain. Focusing on breathing and taking deep breaths quiets the mind and induces the relaxation response, a well-studied physiologic response that counteracts the stress response, and may lessen chronic pain severity. To practice deep breathing:
- Breathe in slowly through your nose, allowing your chest and lower belly to rise as you fill your lungs completely.
- Now exhale slowly through your mouth or nose.
- Practice deep breathing for several minutes.
Meditation. Like deep breathing, meditating triggers the relaxation response and may reduce the perception of pain. You can use many methods to meditate, such as transcendental meditation (repeating a word, phrase, or sound to quiet your thoughts); yoga (a series of strengthening and stretching postures combined with breathing techniques); or mindfulness meditation (focusing objectively on negative thoughts as they move through your mind, so you can achieve a state of calm).
One simple way to meditate:
- Sit quietly, close your eyes, and focus on your breathing.
- Say a word such as “peace” or “one” each time you exhale.
- Don’t worry about thoughts that come to mind; you can come back to them later. Continue to repeat your word and focus on breathing.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). This approach combines mindfulness meditation and yoga to build awareness and acceptance of moment-to-moment experiences, including pain. A 2019 study published in the journal Evidence-Based Mental Health found MBSR was just as effective as CBT at reducing pain and depression, and improving physical functioning, compared with usual care or no care. You’ll find MBSR programs at hospitals, universities, and meditation centers, and online videos.
Relaxation. Relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation, may also help reduce the perception of pain. To try progressive muscle relaxation, start with your facial muscles and work your way down the body. Tighten each muscle or muscle group for 20 seconds before slowly releasing the contraction. As the muscle relaxes, concentrate on the release of tension and the sensation of relaxation.
About the Author
Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles.
No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
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Pain Relief Without Drugs or Surgery
Pain relief takes many forms. This Special Health Report, Pain Relief Without Drugs or Surgery, looks beyond the standard approaches of drugs and surgery and explores alternate pain-relief strategies, from acupuncture and mind-body therapies to spinal manipulation, physical and occupational therapies, herbal remedies, mindfulness meditation, and music therapy among others. The report also provides specific treatments for 10 common pain conditions.
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