Our bodies are engineered with a natural system of protection—pain. The feeling of pain is an indication to your brain that something potentially dangerous is happening to your body.
These cookies smell delicious. As you slide the cookies out of the oven, your hand brushes against the scorching tray. You immediately recoil in pain, and the stinging sensation begins to fade.
For example, when your hand touches a hot surface, your brain receives the nerve signal of pain from your hand and responds by sending a signal back to your hand to recoil quickly. Pain that arises from acute situations like this can be managed by avoiding the danger or removing the source of pain. However, some pain is more chronic and severe, and cannot be managed as easily as simply pulling your hand away from a hot surface.
Meditation has been shown to be a very useful tool in managing pain, even in situations of severe, long-term pain. The art of meditation has been in practice for thousands of years, and involves a centering of the mind and a focusing inwards to achieve a state of calm. When using meditation as a method of pain management, several challenges arise that must be overcome for this technique to be effective.
Meditation can reformulate the way your mind processes feelings of pain. This can allow severe and ongoing pain to be handled via meditative exercises. One method of pain control/management by meditation uses a concept called the Gate Control Theory. The basis of this theory is specific signals of pain from the nerve endings back to the brain can be blocked, thereby minimizing/preventing certain feelings of pain. Pain signals are transmitted via nerve impulses along the spinal cord to the brain.
The Gate Control Theory states that the synapses in the spinal cord choose which nerve signals to transmit to the brain, based on prioritization. Some signals are categorized as “important” and are transmitted to the brain right away, and some signals are blocked. This theory asserts that due to the high volume of nerve signals and information being sent via the spinal cord to the brain, this “gate” serves as a control mechanism to avoid overload. Since this Gate Control involves a filtration of nerve signals, including pain, it can be harnessed in a meditative exercise to help mindfully control pain.
The idea that focusing on pain can intensify feelings of discomfort is well known. Gate Control Theory asserts that this is due to the spinal cord nerve synapses reacting to your focusing on the pain by categorizing these signals as important, and transmitting them directly to the brain. Gate Control Theory states that by shifting your focus away from the pain, you can effectively slow or block the transfer of pain signals to your brain. This has been shown to help alleviate perception of physical pain. For example, the Lamaze method of childbirth pain management requires the mother to focus on breathing exercises and redirect her focus away from the pain, in order to minimize or block the transmission of these feelings of pain to her brain.
The act of shifting attention away from the pain or location of an injury requires a high level of mental discipline and control. Meditation provides a method of attaining this high level of mental control, as well as restores a state of calm to the mind and body. Stress and resistance to feelings of pain can cause an internal friction that makes pain worse. For example, negative thoughts, anxiety, fear, etc. can all escalate stress and make the physical pain more difficult to handle.
Learning to calm these stressful reactions via meditation can go a long way in relieving physical pain as well. Meditation allows you to alleviate feelings of stress and relax your resistance, helping the pain to recede. Focusing on positive thoughts, such as visualizing yourself healthy and happy, can distract you from the pain and help to close the “gate” to perception of the pain. Focus on creating a healing, calming energy within yourself.
One technique that is particularly effective in distracting your mind from pain is to occupy it with a challenging or “busy” task. Keeping your mind busy with other processes can help to prevent dwelling on the pain and intensifying the transmission of pain signals to your brain.
To begin the meditation for pain management, first ensure that your physical position, location, surroundings, etc. are conducive to maintaining a meditative state. Sitting in an uncomfortable position will definitely not help you manage pain! Make sure that your chair, bed, or mat is comfortable. Adjust the temperature in the room to a pleasant level, and make sure that any potential other distractions are prevented.
Begin your meditation by focusing on breathing slowly in and out. For some people, listening to soothing music simultaneously can help them maintain rhythm in their breathing and can provide a further distraction from the pain. Counting backwards from 100, while listening to soothing music and breathing slowly in and out, can help keep you focused away from the feelings of pain. The goal of meditation for pain management must be to keep the mind occupied with other activities, to shift your attention away from focusing on the pain. This can allow your natural Gate Control process to filter out the pain signals before they are transmitted to your brain.
The goal of meditation is to achieve a state of inner peace and harmony, focused on a calm sense of self. Pain, in addition to the physical discomfort caused by the actual transmission of nerve signals, can cause an emotional response of internal resistance that can add to your level of overall suffering. The art of meditation involves learning to work through this internal friction, harmonizing our inner self and learning to stop resisting the pain.
By focusing on distracting our mind from the pain as opposed to fighting it, we move away from the negative feelings of fear and stress and cultivate feelings of peace. This emotional benefit of inner peace, combined with the physical benefit of shifting focus away from the pain, can significantly improve your ability to manage pain using meditation.