Mindfully Approaching Pain: The Way Through May Just be the Way Out

Woman sitting on bed holding back in pain“Oh, my aching body!” You’ve heard this exclamation – or something like it – many times, probably in television commercials advertising the latest miracle pill or cream that promises fast relief and few side effects, perhaps from a family member or friend who did a few too many reps at the gym, pulled a muscle fighting with the lawn mower, or is simply down for a few days because of the flu and feels bad all over. You yourself are probably not immune to occasional aches and pains stemming from illness or injury. For some of us, however, pain is a more frequent visitor, and for others, being in pain has become a way of life.

I’ve had my share of physical and emotional pain as the result of being born with spina bifida, a defect of the spinal cord that results in orthopedic and neurological issues. I’ve done my stints in hospitals, sometimes lengthy ones, sometimes – as a child – ones I didn’t understand the reasons for. However, I’ve managed to live a full and complete life coexisting with my medical and related issues. Nonetheless, at times, when unexpected or unexplained pain occurs, I become frightened because I don’t immediately understand its implications, afraid to seek medical help because I don’t want to find out one more thing that’s “wrong” with me. My mind is carried back to those old childhood experiences of being in pain, alone, and afraid – and I panic, because in the limbic center of my brain, which stores memories related to trauma, I can’t tell time, and therefore, those experiences seem to be happening all over again, right now.

What do we do when we’re frightened – of experiencing pain, or of anything else? The stress reaction in our bodies may urge us to either fight or to run away. To fight, we may simply choose to go into denial and continue with our regular routine; this works for a time, but is actually, in the long run, pretty ineffective as a coping skill if the pain is indicative of a serious issue. Or, to run away, we may resort to overuse of medication, sometimes self-prescribed and often including alcohol and other more illicit substances – although this is not to deny the importance of prescribed medication as part of an effective pain management regimen – or to overindulgence in escape routes such as television and other media, or other pursuits. This type of coping skill is often equally ineffective; we forget the problem for a time, but it usually persists, and probably gets worse.

Most of us have heard, though, that the way to get over a challenging life situation is not to take a detour, but to face it and go through it. In the case of pain – whether physical or psychic – this is equally true. Mindfulness meditation to aid in the management of pain was first researched and taught in the U.S. at the University of Massachusetts Medical School under the direction of Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, founding Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society there. Kabat-Zinn has a doctorate in molecular biology and many years of experience researching the relationship between the brain, physical illness and stress, and has written numerous articles and books on the subject. Currently, mindfulness meditation for medical application is researched and taught at over 200 American institutions of higher learning and hospitals.

About ten years ago, through a very painful experience of my own, I was introduced to the concept of mindfulness and its application to medical issues. I had gone through a relatively simple surgical procedure from which a 2-week recovery period was expected.  I refused to honor the limitations placed on me by my physician, and did not stay in bed for the required recovery period – and, in fact, got up the second day following surgery and drove to my office, absolutely convinced that if I did not do the payroll myself, it would not get done, despite assurances to the contrary from upper management (can anyone say, “Denial!”?). As the result, my stitches opened up and I developed a serious infection requiring antibiotics and pain medication – to which I developed severe allergic reactions. I was down for another three weeks, I wasn’t healing, I was frightened, and the doctor said I would have to come in for more suturing – this time with material more resembling packaging twine than surgical suturing – the thought of which horrified me.

I had been reading about healing light meditation (one of many forms of mindfulness and contemplative therapies for medical issues) and thought, out of desperation, that the time to try it ought to be now. My audiotaped instructions told me:

  • to start out breathing deeply until in a relaxed state;
  • direct my attention to the part of my body that wasn’t healing, taking in every aspect of the pain of dis-ease, thoroughly examining it, accepting it for what it was;
  • acknowledge the role I had played in perpetuating this pain, without recrimination or remorse but with compassion and understanding for my own human foibles;
  • breathe in a gold healing light and send it to that area, letting it soothe and bathe the affected place with warmth and comfort;
  • breathe out red hotness, representing toxins and other impurities;
  • do the same for all my major bodily systems; and
  • imagine a golden light above my head and observe it as it traveled down my spine and down into my toes, then back up again to its point of beginning.
  • Finally, I visualized the light as it became a protective golden bubble around my entire being, enveloping and shielding me from further harm.

At peace, I went to sleep, and, in the morning, was both shocked and relieved that my body had virtually healed itself overnight! I of course kept the doctor’s appointment, but advised the nurse that she probably ought to have a look at the wound before the doctor prepared for the suturing process. She, and the doctor in turn, were amazed at the healing that had taken place, but they would not deny that not only do miracles happen, but also that what we think, believe and envision can have a tremendous effect on what actually occurs in our lives. I was living proof.

So, what did this experience teach me? First, that mind and body are not separate, but a unified whole in which parts can and do influence each other: that acceptance is a more useful path to healing than are resistance or retreat; and that I am strong enough both to be with pain and to work through it.

As with practically everything I write on this subject of mindfulness, this article contains information and recounts my personal experience. It’s not intended as advice, and certainly does not advocate that the technique discussed here is an appropriate substitute for obtaining professional advice on your own. If you are a person who has difficulty with pain management, I would certainly recommend that you ask your medical provider to help you locate information about medical applications of mindfulness meditation. Although the exercise I’ve described here is highly oriented towards the visual, know that there are other modalities that make use of other sensations, such as sound and touch, which can help those who are not so visually inclined.

As an old saying goes, what we resist, persists. Pain is a fact of life for many of us, and for others it may well become a part of the daily routine at some point. Rather than denying or running away, practicing mindfulness and acceptance provides a way of getting through pain and enjoying a more rewarding and fulfilling life experience.

What opportunities to be mindful and accepting of painful experiences will present themselves to you today and what will you do with them?

© Copyright 2011 by Suellen Fagin-Allen, JD, LMHC, PA. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Lizzy

    August 3rd, 2011 at 3:03 PM

    Awesome article! thank you so much I am going to try this today

  • Suellen Fagin-Allen

    August 4th, 2011 at 9:37 AM

    Lizzy, I’m glad this has been helpful to you! I hope the technique works. Remember, though, that it’s important to seek the help of a medical professional for any medical issues that don’t resolve through the use of other means.

  • philipa

    August 4th, 2011 at 12:31 PM

    This ha happened with me but on a smaller scale.This one time I feel off my bicycle and was hurt quite a lot because I was not wearing any protection.Two days felt like months because time seemed to slow down due to the pain.

    That is when I started talking to myself.I said-Why does this little wound have to hurt the big me?Its my body and I have the control.This is not going to hurt me anymore.

    It may surprise you,but I felt pain lesser and lesser and the wound quickly healed.I was not meditating but then I did concentrate on what I was telling myself and put my mind to it.

    After all,pain is in the mind.And if the mind can be convinced there is no pain then there is a lot that we can achieve to defeat pain.

  • Suellen Fagin-Allen

    August 6th, 2011 at 9:46 AM

    Philipa, I couldn’t agree with you more. What we tell ourselves about what happens to us can affect how we understand our experiences just as strongly as the experiences themselves. Thanks for your comment!

  • jackie clarke

    January 25th, 2013 at 6:54 AM

    i thank you for this information,i have ms and when my marirage was breaking down, i ended up with chronic pain around my lower part of my chest and my back known as the bear hug and apparently it all the mussels going in to spasm. i was asked to number it at the time it was 9\10 but through breathing and mindfulness was of thinking i have it under control at 4\5 and i’m off all medications for it. hypnosis was helpful to.

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