How does Mindfulness change the experience of pain?
For thousands of years, meditators have understood that the experience of pain can be transformed by meditation. Indeed, some traditions have seen incredibly arduous challenges as a pathway to spiritual purification, with followers seeking out gruelling physical experiences to achieve mental purification. So it is not surprising that followers of the contemplative traditions have long understood a great deal about pain.
The potential benefit of Mindfulness has been recognised in Western Health settings also for the past several decades, with Mindfulness becoming ever more popular. This article, published in 2012 provides a useful summary of some of the scientific findings about Mindfulness and it's impact on pain.
In this article, Fadel Zeidan and his colleagues describe recent scientific findings that help to shed light on how Mindfulness influences pain.
One of the findings described by Zeidan is that long-term expert meditators with many years of Mindfulness practice have a significantly greater amount of grey matter in the mid-cingulate cortex, which is an area of the brain involved in processing sensory information. During experimentally induced pain these expert meditators were shown to have far greater brain activation in this area, and less activation in areas of the brain involved in appraisal, elaboration and emotional reactivity. They also reported experimentally induced pain to be less unpleasant than control subjects, but not less intense. These findings indicate that a regular practice of Mindfulness Meditation actually leads to changes in the structure of the brain which influence how pain is processed and experienced.
The article also summarises several studies which have looked at the impact of mindfulness much earlier on in training. Even after 3 or 4 sessions of Mindfulness training some studies have reported changes in the intensity of experimentally induced pain that participants can tolerate. A method of 'open awareness' which involves allowing sensations to be there, noticing them and not trying to resist in any way is described as a far more effective strategy for the containment of pain than distraction, which tends to be more unhelpful in the long term.
This review article, which describes both changes in pain unpleasantness and tolerance very early on in Mindfulness training as well as visible and significant changes in brain structure in more advanced meditators provides us with scientific evidence that practising Mindfulness really does make a difference. Something that long-term meditators have known for years is starting to be confirmed by our emerging understanding of neuroscience.
If you have the time, paste the link into your browser and read the article for yourself. It might just help to boost your motivation to stick with a Mindfulness practice that can at times feel too difficult, pointless or boring to stick with. For those with long-term pain problems it will likely take longer than a few sessions for real improvement to occur. Zeidans article reminds us that a regular practice of Mindfulness really can lead to visible and profound changes if only we dare to stick with it.