Mindfulness is a concept that’s gained more and more popularity over the last few years. Many of us have heard of it, but what exactly is it and what does it do? Most importantly, how can it help people suffering from chronic pain?
In its simplest sense, mindfulness is simply being more aware of the present moment. As our lives get busier and ever more interconnected, it can become impossible to avoid being constantly distracted. When’s the last time you spent a family dinner glancing at your phone? How often do you sneak a peek at Twitter whilst chatting to your mum? When did you last spend a boring afternoon at work clicking between that spreadsheet and Buzzfeed’s latest listicle? I bet everything I own that it was far more recently and often than you might want to admit. And I’m completely guilty of it too; we all are.
That’s the point: simply taking in your surroundings, being fully aware of where and who you are, can seem like an impossible task in our frenetic world. The practice of mindfulness encourages and enables you simply to be fully present in the moment, aware of exactly what’s going on inside and outside your body. There’s no mumbo jumbo, no difficult concept to grasp, no transcendence to attain; it is purely the practice of focussing your mind entirely on what is happening in that moment of your existence.
How do you do it?
Mindfulness practice can range from simple quick exercises you can do anywhere to more formal meditation. Activities include taking time to notice what each of your senses is registering at that moment, identifying thoughts as they come and go, or slowly scanning your body to know exactly what is going on inside you.
If you’re interested in giving it a go, then check out A beginner’s guide to mindfulness for CRPS and Chronic Pain for some simple exercises you can try.
How does mindfulness relate to chronic pain?
We’re hardwired to respond to the stimulus of pain: it’s a warning system, clanging the alarm bells to let us know that something is very wrong and we’re in danger. The problem with chronic pain, like CRPS, is that you’re actually not in any danger; the pain signal is faulty and raising the alarm without justification, much like a fire alarm that won’t turn off.
That means that those with chronic pain can spend lots of exhausting time battling the signals their body is sending. Extreme pain, like that of CRPS, can activate our fight or flight response, releasing adrenaline and getting our muscles ready to run or battle for our lives. The problem is that there’s nothing to fight or run away from; the only threat exists inside our own bodies. These adrenaline rushes can lead to crashes of total exhaustion.
Mindfulness, particularly a branch of it called acceptance and commitment therapy, encourages sufferers of chronic pain to stop battling their pain and accept that it’s part of them. Taking your body out of its state of constant heightened alert and accepting that the pain won’t actually damage you is not an easy thing to do, but it can reap huge benefits.
So how does it work?
In essence, mindfulness practice for chronic pain encourages sufferers to ‘accept’ that the pain is now part of them and ‘commit’ to moving forward with the pain, rather than in constant battle with it. Mindfulness enables practitioners to observe what is happening within their body, whilst removing the urge to judge what you’re feeling.
For example, I find it very difficult to open my mind to my CRPS pain in my lower left leg. And when I do so, I find it even harder to do it without judgement. When I’m in a lot of pain, my mind automatically wants to close itself off to my leg, distracting me or focusing elsewhere as a coping technique. I find it scary and emotional to let my pain in; it makes me worry about the past and future, recalling all the pain has taken from me and generating new fears about what I may lose or miss out on in the future due to my chronic pain, making me doubt my ability to cope in the long-term.
My mindfulness training shows me how to open myself to my pain without judging it or myself. So I notice that it hurts a lot, but I’m careful not to let my fears overtake me when I let that in. And again, I notice the fears that come, but I recognise that these are just thoughts, not facts, and that my fears aren’t necessarily true. When I’m overwhelmed by the pain and all my negative thoughts and fears threaten to drown me, I take time to quiet my mind, remembering that I’m not actually in any danger and that these are only thoughts; like leaves in a stream, new thoughts will be along any second. And again, when these new thoughts arrive, I take time to recognise and notice them without judgement.
How does it help?
Mindfulness essentially encourages mental flexibility, giving you the choice of how to respond to what you’re feeling. Being more conscious of the present moment can enable you to enjoy life more and lessen the hold pain may have. My mindfulness has, in the past, allowed me to enjoy an afternoon with my daughter in the garden or watching a film with my husband, despite the pain. Previously I might have spent that time absorbed in trying to make my pain go away; now I’m able to turn away from the battle and focus on what I want to do without my pain dominating.
Many of us find ourselves in a downward spiral of thinking every time we get a CRPS flare. My own often starts with “oh it hurts it hurts” to “what if I can’t walk the dog later?”, moving onto “what if I can’t ever walk the dog again?” to “what do I do if the pain stays this bad forever? How will I cope? Am I strong enough?” to “I don’t think I’m strong enough, what the hell will I do? Remember that time the pain was so bad and you cried and cried” and so on. It’s exhausting and terrifying if I let myself get caught up in it.
Mindfulness has taught me to recognise when this spiral starts to happen. Simply recognising that it’s a spiral of thinking and naming my thoughts takes away some of their influence; removing the emotional power from these thoughts then enables me to watch them occur, recognising and noticing the spiral without judging. I can’t always do it perfectly of course, and there are still times when the spiral drags me down. But that’s okay as well; mindfulness has given me the strength and flexibility of thinking to move outside my own thoughts and assess them more rationally. I can challenge the strength of a negative thought like “everyone’s so disappointed in me because I can’t go out today because of the pain”. It’s still a hurtful thought, of course, but in the past I would have held it as an indisputably true statement; now I know that it’s simply a thought, just one of my demons piping up, and I can choose how I respond to it, challenging and silencing it if I want to.
I find mindfulness a really useful tool in how I live with CRPS pain every day. If you’d like to know more about where to get started with mindfulness then check out this article for some advice on where to begin.