Pain can make us miserable, especially the never-ending, chronic type. And even worse when it’s associated with a terminal disease, like little-known mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer arising mostly from exposure to asbestos. Periodically, I run mindfulness sessions for sufferers of this illness and their carers, introducing them to the basics and benefits of the practice.
I work with several regional branches of this charity and last week, during a session with some new attendees, I opened with my usual introduction and then took the delegates on a 10-minute basic breath meditation. After closing out the meditation, I asked how everyone was feeling, and a gentleman spoke up and said “Well, it was ok… but it didn’t make my pain go away!”. I nodded and smiled. In my head I was thinking, ‘I haven’t yet said that it would!’, but waited for more words before I gave my reply. He looked thoughtful and then reasoned, “but come to think of it, as I focused on my breathing, it did seem to take my mind off my pain”. Bingo. I wanted to high-five him through my laptop screen. Hit the nail on the head, sir.
Mindfulness has been shown to improve our perceptions of pain, and even to reduce the intensity of the pain itself. When we experience pain, there is a primary stimulus or feeling and secondary suffering. If you have a headache, then there is a cause (usually) that creates the pain, but then we add further suffering by, for example, worrying about how many headaches we are getting lately, and is this the sign of something worse? Oh my God, is this how life is going to be having these headaches all the time? Etcetera. Cue negative thought spiral.
When we experience pain, the signals from nociceptors (pain-sensing neurons) reach the brain through our spinal cord. But other parts of the brain get involved before the final signal is received. They ‘stick their oar in’ and depending on our state of wellbeing and mood, the signal is modified and intensified or reduced the level of pain we actually feel.
Think of when you stub your toe during a celebratory dance. (Come on, we all do those at some time!) Do you find yourself experiencing the pain stimulus but also laughing at it because you were in such a good mood? Compare that to a similar incident when you were having a day of bad news instead and it is cold and wet outside. Big difference?
Mindfulness helps us to calm the mind down, to rein in the anxiety and exaggerations we create, so that we can be more measured and equanimous about life, therefore neutralising our mood a little. This is helpful for people suffering from terminal diseases because if they can become more accepting than resistant, it literally means they can modify their perception of pain.
The gentleman talked about being distracted from the level of his pain by focusing on his breath, which is one technique, but also, we can use mindfulness to explore the feeling itself; to face the monster, as it were. Practicing body scan type meditations means that we can shine an exploratory light on the pain (perhaps counterintuitive: why would you want to look further into it?) and see it for what it really is. Often, we find that the core of the pain is not as bad or as constant as our imaginations tell us.