More than one out of every 20 Americans suffer from some type of chronic pain, according to figures released by the National Institutes of Health earlier this year – 52.4 cases per 1,000 persons per year.
Add that sobering stat to the well-known perils of narcotic and other prescription pain relievers and it is not surprising that there are millions of people seeking – sometimes desperately – for effective ways to handle pain that are not drug related and can be done as long as their condition lasts. One method that is being used with ever-increasing frequency by the medical community is mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness is a type of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment. It involves breathing methods, guided imagery and other practices to relax the body and mind, and help reduce stress.
In a study published in 2022, researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine measured the effects of mindfulness on pain perception and brain activity, showing that mindfulness meditation interrupted the communication between brain areas involved in pain sensation and those that produce the sense of self.
Lisa Terry, MSW, LCSW and founder of the Terry Mindfulness Center, LLC, described one method of mindfulness mediation she uses with her patients in Vero Beach, which she calls the body scan: “It takes a little while to get comfortable with it,” Terry said. “A person lies down in bed or sits in a chair in a relaxed setting and closes his or her eyes and takes deep breaths. Starting with the toes, they work their way up the body, breathing in and out until they are occupied with the body part troubling them.
“When they get to where the pain is, they think about where it’s emanating from and appreciate the body. They don’t make a judgment against it. The goal of the body scan is not to relieve the pain completely, but to get to know it and learn from it so you can manage it.”
According to the UC San Diego study, when patients achieve a “mindful” state, pain signals still move from the body to the brain, but the individual does not feel as much ownership over those pain sensations, so their pain and suffering are reduced.
“You train yourself to experience thoughts and sensations without attaching your ego or sense of self to them,” said study leader associate professor of anesthesiology Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D. “We’re now finally seeing how this plays out [in helpful ways] in the brain during the experience of acute pain.”
He added that for many people struggling with chronic pain, what often affects their quality of life most is not the pain itself, but the mental suffering and frustration that comes along with it. Their pain becomes a part of who they are as individuals – something they can’t escape.
According to the UC San Diego study, mindfulness can break that cycle and sense of desperation for many patients, with those actively meditating reporting a 32 percent reduction in pain intensity and a 33 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness.
Mayo Clinic backs up what Terry and Zeidan report, stating that daily mindfulness practice can be helpful for people living with chronic pain because sometimes there are negative or worrisome thoughts about the pain. These thoughts are normal but can affect mood and increase pain. Being able to focus on relaxing the body, noticing the breath and body sensations as being there just as they are helps manage pain and reduces depression and anxiety symptoms.
My American Nurse, the official journal of the American Nurses Association, recently published an article that chronicles other health benefits of mindfulness meditation, reporting that besides helping alleviate chronic pain, it can help relieve stress, treat heart disease, lower blood pressure, improve sleep and alleviate gastrointestinal difficulties.
This jibes with findings reported in an article published by the American Psychological Association entitled “Mindfulness meditation: A research-proven way to reduce stress.”
According to the 2019 article, “researchers reviewed more than 200 studies of mindfulness among healthy people and found mindfulness-based therapy was especially effective for reducing stress, anxiety and depression as well as [helping] reduce pain, fatigue and stress in people with chronic pain … Other studies have found preliminary evidence that mindfulness might boost the immune system and help people recover more quickly from cold or flu.”
Terry said that staying in the moment – a key aspect of mindfulness meditation – is important for mental and physical well-being. “Don’t speculate in the future or think about the past with regret,” she said. “The phone is a big problem with people who come to see me.
It’s so simple yet people dismiss it: You don’t need ringtones. You just need to make yourself still. You need to be able to notice when your brain is going somewhere else and bring it back to meditation.”
Mindfulness meditation has been around for thousands of years, originating in Buddhist teaching, and has been steadily spreading in Western medical practice since 1979. That year, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a microbiologist working at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, started a modest eight-week program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), inviting patients to take some time for self-care down in the hospital’s basement. More than 40 years later, MBSR is taught in hospitals the world over and has become the gold standard for applying mindfulness to the stresses of everyday life and for researching ways that mindfulness practice can improve mental and physical health.
Kabat-Zinn emphasized that mindfulness is not a mental trick but a basic human inheritance that is essential to life. “We need to be optimally aware of who we are, where we are, and how we are in order to survive individually and as communities.”
Terry has clients who come to her for help with relationship and personal issues, as well as relief from pain. “Whether for issues with elderly parents, your children or couples in need of help, the premise of mindfulness meditation and relaxation can be an effective tool,” she said.
Lisa Terry has been in private practice since 1996. She received her bachelor’s (1990) and master’s (1991) degrees from Florida State University and is a licensed clinical social worker.
She operated her practice in Vero Beach for 25 years before moving this summer to Orlando.
She is accepting new virtual clients in Vero Beach and elsewhere at terrymindfulness.com.
She can also be reached at email@example.com or 772-564-0406.