Take a mental break from pain

Mindfulness can help soothe short-term and chronic pain.

Published: April, 2021

Your mind is a powerful pain remedy when given the chance. Science continues to show how mindfulness can manage pain — and it doesn't take years to master.

"Using mindfulness is a way for older adults to treat ongoing chronic pain and the occasional flare-up without having to always rely on medication," says Ellen Slawsby, director of pain services at Harvard-affiliated Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine.

Shift your thinking

Mindfulness means being aware of the present moment and accepting a situation without judgment. "When pain strikes, mindfulness helps to shift your thinking away from negativity to recognize pain for what it is — something that can ease," says Slawsby.

This change in mindset also interrupts your brain's processing of painful feelings and can induce a relaxation response to naturally release endorphins, the feel-good brain chemicals, and help relieve discomfort.

The goal of mindfulness is not to eliminate pain, but rather to manage your reaction to it, according to Slawsby. "You don't focus on going from a high of 10 to zero on the pain scale, but rather 10 to around five," she says. "That amount of change can do wonders for getting through painful episodes."

Ultimately, mindfulness is about being more in control of your pain. "Pain happens in life, and accepting that it occurs — and you can help it ease — is liberating and shows you don't have to fear it," says Slawsby.

Practice makes perfect

As with acquiring any new skill, learning mindfulness takes practice. Slawsby suggests doing some kind of mindfulness exercise for 20 minutes every day. This teaches you to stay in the moment, channel your thoughts and positive energy into a single experience, and learn to relax.

"It takes about four to six weeks of daily practice for mindfulness to become a natural reaction to pain," says Slawsby.

There are many ways to practice mindfulness. Guided meditation is ideal, but here are some other suggestions.

Count breaths. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing as you count your breaths to 10 and then backward to zero. Repeat several times. "Something so natural and repetitive, like breathing can move your focus away from pain, while it helps to calm anxiety," says Slawsby.

Watch and listen. Observing the natural world, like the trees in your backyard or squirrels scampering around, also can produce a mindful and relaxing state. YouTube (www.youtube.com) offers many videos that show tranquil nature settings, often with calming background music.

"You can feel some of the same benefits from a virtual experience, like watching a person snorkeling over a coral reef or walking through Muir Woods in California," says Slawsby.

Be aware of when pain occurs. Sometimes pain is predictable, and mindfulness can be a pre-emptive measure. For example, if you suffer from recurring morning pain and stiffness, do a mindful stretching or yoga routine when you first wake up. "In this way, mindfulness helps you think about ways to ease pain before you expect it to begin."

Look to your past. We've all had moments of mindfulness before, so think back to those times and try to replicate them. "What did you do that helped you feel calm and in control?" says Slawsby. "It could be a hobby or a household chore or some other form of repetitive absorbing stimuli."

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