It seems there is a buzz about mindfulness at the moment.
There is an emerging industry of mindfulness books, classes and even apps that all promise to help you improve your life through mindfulness.
Academics have caught on too – in the last 5 years, there has been around about 400 clinical research trials conducted on mindfulness.
To say mindfulness is popular at the moment is an understatement.
But what is mindfulness exactly, and how can it help you deal with pain?
Mindfulness can be simply described as the practice of paying attention to the present moment in a non-judgemental manner – that encompasses everything about that moment, from your thoughts and feelings to body sensations, all the way to what is going on around you.
Most sources claim that mindfulness originated with early Buddhist practices, whilst others say it predates Buddhism and was practiced by Hindus. It is likely that ever since humans have been able to think, that we’ve been able to be mindful and have done so in some form, without necessarily labelling it.
Currently, mindfulness and meditation (two related, but different practices) are being heavily researched for a range of applications, notably in stress and pain management.
Pain is described as an “unpleasant sensory and emotional experience” and whilst we “feel” pain in our body, it is actually a brain output, part of a broader threat/stress response, thus, targeting the brain for treatment is quite important.
Pain can be divided into 2 categories: physiological (acute) pain – the pain we experience with injury, which decreases as the injury heals and is an important part of our survival mechanism and pathophysiological (chronic) pain – that is pain whereby the nervous system has undergone functional and structural changes and is no longer correlated with tissue damage.
Mindfulness can be helpful with both types of pain, but its applications are particularly helpful for those who suffer from persistent pain, which is often quite challenging to treat with medications and physical interventions.
Probably the most seminal research to date, or at least the research most quoted by popular writers is a study performed at Harvard that demonstrated both functional and structural changes to people’s brains after an 8 week period of practicing mindfulness.
The key finding was an increase in grey matter – the processing part of your brain - in certain areas.
These included the anterior cingulate cortex, which appears to play a role in regulating heart rate and blood pressure as well being involved in cognitive processes including reward anticipation, decision making, empathy, impulse control and emotion.
Another key area affected by mindfulness is the hippocampus, is part of the limbic system, which is related to emotion, memory, motivation, smelling and certain stress hormones. The hippocampus is one of the first areas to be affected in Alzheimer’s disease.
Both these areas of the brain are involved in the pain process, and being able to target them in an easy, accessible and free manner is immense!
The effects of mindfulness meditation are not limited to structural changes to the brain, or the two areas mentioned. In fact, the research is only in its infancy, so the overall effects are still largely unknown from a scientific point of view.
However, things are promising. Anecdotal reports suggest mindfulness to be a good strategy to help with pain, and the research to date certainly supports that.
The biggest drawback of mindfulness is nothing to do with its effectiveness, but rather, it’s perception amongst the public.
Mindfulness doesn’t need to involve sitting cross legged on a mat and focusing on your breath, it can be as simple as focusing 100% of your awareness on whatever you are doing in the present moment, realising that thoughts and feelings will emerge, but that is okay, as they will also disperse.
For someone who is suffering from pain, there can be many associated thoughts and feelings, often negative. Mindfulness is one method of dealing with these and being able to continue living a fulfilling life.