meditation and pain

“Turn toward the fire, and enter, confident.” Dante Alighieri

Today I’m going to talk about pain and how meditation can help you deal with it. You may not be experiencing pain today, but it’s something that happens to us all, and hopefully there will be something here that you find useful. Also what I’m going to say applies not just to physical but to emotional pain (hurt, anxiety, loneliness, etc.) so it’s relevant to everyone.

In the midst of pain there is magic. If you find this puzzling, let me tell you how I know this and how you can see it for yourself.

I started having migraines when I was perhaps 13 years old. When I first tried meditating with migraines it did not help. As soon as I took my awareness to the nausea it would become more intense. And there was no way on earth I wanted to turn toward the headaches. I just wanted them to go away.

It turned out, though, that being mindful of less extreme forms of discomfort, like an aching back, hunger, an itch, or even emotional forms of pain, such as sadness or grief was a useful way to train for more extreme pain. It became more natural to turn toward what is painful rather than to turn away. I found that much of the pain that is involved in such experiences is actually caused by my resistance. When we tense up physically or emotionally around pain, it gets more intense.

Part of the practice of investigating pain was to see that it wasn’t a unitary phenomenon. We can use the single word “pain” to refer to, say, a sore back, but that doesn’t capture the richness and complexity of the experience. When I looked closely, I found that the pain was composed of a number of interwoven sensations. There might be heat, pressure, tingling, pulsing, throbbing, stabbing, and so on. One or another of these might be the most prominent part of the pain at any given time. Each of them changed, moment by moment. Pain stopped seeming so solid. In fact even the individual interwoven sensations I’ve mentioned stopped seeming solid, and instead had the appearance of twinkling points of sensation suspended in space. Sometimes, in turning my attention toward pain, I’d find that there was no pain to be found.

I’ve noticed the same in other arenas in life. I often edit my own meditation recordings, and sometimes I’ll have to remove a click that’s in the middle of a sound, like the AH sound in the word “relaxed.” And I noticed that when I zoom in really close to a sound like AH — down at the level of fractions of a hundredth of a second — there’s no AH to be heard. This morning, at the end of my meditation, I was looking at a white candle, and I couldn’t see any white. There were infinite shades of browns and yellows, but no white. So, sometimes when you look close enough at a thing, it has a completely different appearance from when it’s viewed from further away or with less attention.

So a few days ago I woke up with a migraine. I observed that there were many sensations in the body that were unrelated to the migraine at all. When we fixate on pain we miss those. I found that my calf muscles in particular were full of pleasurable tingling energy, and the more I paid attention to everything that was not the migraine, the more intense and widespread those sensations became. And then turning toward the pain and the nausea, everything very quickly took on that now familiar sense of transparency. Around 15 minutes into the meditation my tummy started rumbling, which is always a sign that the migraine is on the way out, since my entire digestive tract shuts down during a migraine. At that point the migraine wasn’t entirely gone, but it was quite manageable and I was able to get up and go about my day.

I don’t want to give the impression that I have this sorted out. Sometimes pain sneaks up on me and I forget to be mindful of it. And there are some forms of emotional discomfort that I have most definitely not learned to embrace in awareness, and that I react to strongly. I’m still working with all this and trying to learn to do it better.

But I’d strongly suggest, if you have problems with pain (and you all will at some point) that you practice turning toward smaller discomforts as a way of training yourself to be mindful and equanimous with difficult experiences. Over time I hope you’ll find, as I have, that in the midst of pain there is magic.

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When in doubt, breathe out – the power of breathing properly

woman breathing

Vidyamala’s online course, Mindfulness for Women, starts March 1. Click here for details.

Breathing properly is immediately helpful because the first thing most of us do when experiencing stress and pain – be it mental, emotional or physical – is inhibit our breathing. Try this short exercise:

Make a fist with one hand. Notice what’s happened to your breathing. You’ll probably notice you’re holding it. Now imagine breathing into the fist. What does it want to do? You’ll probably find it wants to release a little.

The fist in this exercise is a metaphor for any kind of discomfort or stress. When we are not aware, we automatically tense against the stresses of life with associated breath holding. Then follows a vicious cycle of more tension, more breath holding, more discomfort, more tension etc, perhaps physical symptoms such as headaches and tension in the neck, back and shoulders or gut problems. Many of these can be eased by simply becoming aware of your breathing patterns and consciously directing the breath into the cycle of contraction. Gradually the tension will gradually soften and the stress will ease.

Breath holding manifests in a range of ways and shallow breathing, breath-holding or over-breathing are the most common dysfunctions. At the keyboard, for example, we tend to breathe as if permanently in fight/flight/freeze mode, causing all the hormonal imbalances that come with this. You could think of it as ‘screen apnoea’. Like sleep apnoea, a condition characterised by pauses in breathing while asleep, it alters our breathing; in this case causing shallow breathing from the upper chest or infrequent breathing. Unsurprisingly, this has negative consequences for health.

You may live with a lot of perceived pressure, perhaps in the workplace, or you may just have poor posture and ergonomics; sitting for hour after hour with your shoulders hunched. Or you may just be desperate for a break! Whatever the cause, breathing-pattern disorders can result.

Breathing is the number-one physiological function that humans do, affecting your heart rate, your gut, your blood pressure, your digestion and your musculoskeletal system. Therefore, changing your breath consciously, using mindfulness and awareness, is one of the most powerful things you can do to assist your body’s physiology. It can have a massive impact on your health; reducing headaches and shoulder pain and strengthening your core.

How is your breathing at this moment? Commonly, when we are stressed, we fail to exhale completely. So, try it now:

  • Breathe out fully, and feel the little pause at the end of the exhale.
  • Spend a few moments with the breath, allowing it to flow naturally all the way in and all the way out of the body. Notice what it feels like.

To help you remember to do this throughout the day, stick a green dot somewhere around the house where you’ll see it regularly. Or if you work at a computer you could stick the green dot to the side of the screen. Every time you see the dot, breathe out. Relax your jaw. Breathe in through your nose and then out of your nose. Pause. Allow the next in-breath to gather naturally, like a wave gathering in the sea before it flows up the beach. Breathe in and then breathe out fully. Repeat a few times.

Click here for details of Vidyamala’s online course, Mindfulness for Women: Declutter Your Mind, Simplify Your Life, Find Time to ‘Be’

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Pain relief with mindfulness meditation

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Study findings published in the Journal of Neuroscience provide “novel evidence demonstrating that mindfulness meditation produces greater pain relief and employs distinct neural mechanisms than placebo cream and sham mindfulness meditation,” according to the authors.

Led by Fadel Zeidan, PhD, assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, the study team found that mindfulness meditation—unlike other cognitive-based approaches to reduce pain, such as hypnosis, acupuncture, distraction, and even the placebo effect—does not appear to utilize the endogenous opioid system to reduce pain.

“Our finding was surprising and could be important for the millions of chronic pain sufferers who are seeking a fast-acting, non-opiate-based therapy to alleviate their pain,” said Zeidan. The finding is all the more important considering that the approximately 100 million Americans who suffer from chronic pain—according to estimates from the Institute of Medicine—spend more than $600 billion annually on treatment. The finding could also provide much-needed relief to the increasing problem of opioid addiction from prescription medications to heroin, which the CDC has labeled an epidemic.

Although mindfulness meditation had been shown in previous research to reduce pain in experimental and clinical settings, whether it engaged pain-relieving mechanisms other than those associated with the placebo effect (eg, conditioning, psychological context, beliefs) had yet to be defined.

To determine if the analgesic mechanisms of mindfulness meditation are different from placebo or use the body’s opioids, the researchers injected participants with naloxone to block the pain-reducing effects of opioids and then randomly assigned 75 healthy volunteers to 4 days (20 minutes per day) of the following:

  • Mindfulness meditation plus naloxone
  • Non-meditation control plus naloxone
  • Meditation plus saline placebo
  • Non-meditation control plus saline placebo

The study teamed used a thermal probe to heat a small area of participants’ skin to 120.2 degrees, a heat most people find very painful. Participants rated their pain on a sliding scale. Patients in the meditation plus naloxone group experienced a 24% reduction from baseline in pain ratings.

According to Zeidan, this finding shows that even when opioid receptors are chemically blocked, meditation appears to be able to significantly reduce pain by using a different pathway. The mediation plus placebo-saline injection group also experienced a reduction in paint ratings, down 21% from baseline. However, participants in both non-meditation control groups—either with naloxone or placebo-saline injection—actually reported increases in pain.

“Our team has demonstrated across four separate studies that meditation, after a short training period, can reduce experimentally induced pain,” said Zeidan. “And now this study shows that meditation doesn’t work through the body’s opioid system. This study adds to the growing body of evidence that something unique is happening with how meditation reduces pain. These findings are especially significant to those who have built up a tolerance to opiate-based drugs and are looking for a non-addictive way to reduce their pain.”

In a follow-up study, the investigators hope to determine if and how mindfulness meditation can affect a number of various chronic pain conditions.

“At the very least, we believe that meditation could be used in conjunction with other traditional drug therapies to enhance pain relief without it producing the addictive side effects and other consequences that may arise from opiate drugs,” said Zeidan.

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Why meditation isn’t just another wellness trend

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Margaret Abrams, The Observer: A new study in The Journal of Neuroscience focuses on mindfulness meditation as a cure for pain relief, similar to opioids.

Meditation skeptics can no longer ignore the practice, even if they don’t take part in it. Sound baths have sprung up everywhere from Williamsburg’s ultra-trendy Wythe Hotel to Equinox’s luxurious Pure Yoga uptown. There’s MNDFL, a pop-in studio that’s Instagram fodder and the stuff Pinterest dream boards are made of. The Path offers lunch break sits alongside a Sweetgreen salad. There are even wellness apps to find the right meditation spot (and more likely than not, said spot is nowhere near the bare bones locations one might envision).

Each locale is elegant or trendy (depending on the neighborhood), in an effort to make meditation an accessible activity; studios want t0 make it easy for someone to stop by for a quick sit, the same way they would head to Flywheel for a quick spin session. Still, behind the trend, there’s new knowledge that meditation is more than just a moment to regroup while capturing the space on social media channels.

For those unsure about taking time out of their busy day to simply sit there, when they could be working out, watching Netflix, or consuming cocktails, a new study proves mindfulness isn’t wasting time. The study, in The Journal of Neuroscience‘s March 16 issue, focuses on mindfulness meditation as a cure for pain relief, similar to opioids.

The study said, “Mindfulness meditation activates multiple brain regions that …

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It’s time for Buddhists to address ableism and accessibility

Vidyamala Burch, Lion’s Roar: Following two accidents in my teens and twenties, I live with a serious spinal injury, getting around with the help of a wheelchair or crutches and with pain as a constant companion. When I am on retreat, I need to change position regularly, either by lying down or standing up. I need to do this. And at the places where I teach and practice, I can do this. Taraloka, a U.K. retreat center for women where I often teach, has a dedicated living space for disabled retreatants …

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Mindfulness pain relief distinct from placebo effect

wildmind meditation newsJustin Karter, Mad in America: A new study demonstrates that the practice of mindfulness may ease pain in a way that is mechanistically distinct from the placebo effect. Research, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, found that mindfulness meditation not only outperformed placebo and fake meditation for pain relief but that it also activated different brain regions than the placebo treatments.

There is an accumulating body of evidence that mindfulness meditation, defined in this study as “a cognitive practice based on developing nonjudgmental awareness of arising sensory events,” can reduce the subjective experience of pain in various settings. However, scientists have yet to determine …

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Meditation reduces emotional pain by 44%

wildmind meditation newsMandy Oaklander, Time: According to a new study, mindfulness meditation exhibited even stronger physical pain reductions than morphine, says the study’s lead investigator.

Open any magazine and you’ll find that mindfulness has gone mainstream. You’ll also notice there are studies that purport to show meditation’s benefits on just about everything, from kids’ math scores and migraine length to HIV management and bouncing back after a crisis. Now, an elaborate new forthcoming study looks at how the brains of meditators respond to pain, to be published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Dr. Fadel Zeidan, assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist Medical …

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Mindfulness meditation trumps placebo in pain reduction

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Press release, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center: Scientists at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center have found new evidence that mindfulness meditation reduces pain more effectively than placebo.

This is significant because placebo-controlled trials are the recognized standard for demonstrating the efficacy of clinical and pharmacological treatments.

The research, published in the Nov. 18 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, showed that study participants who practiced mindfulness meditation reported greater pain relief than placebo. Significantly, brain scans showed that mindfulness meditation produced very different patterns of activity than those produced by placebo to reduce pain.

“We were completely surprised by the findings,” said Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist and lead investigator of the study. “While we thought that there would be some overlap in brain regions between meditation and placebo, the findings from this study provide novel and objective evidence that mindfulness meditation reduces pain in a unique fashion.”

The study used a two-pronged approach – pain ratings and brain imaging – to determine whether mindfulness meditation is merely a placebo effect. Seventy-five healthy, pain-free participants were randomly assigned to one of four groups: mindfulness meditation, placebo meditation (“sham” meditation), placebo analgesic cream (petroleum jelly) or control.

Pain was induced by using a thermal probe to heat a small area of the participants’ skin to 49 degrees Centigrade (120.2 degrees Fahrenheit), a level of heat most people find very painful. Study participants then rated pain intensity (physical sensation) and pain unpleasantness (emotional response). The participants’ brains were scanned with arterial spin labeling magnetic resonance imaging (ASL MRI) before and after their respective four-day group interventions.

The mindfulness meditation group reported that pain intensity was reduced by 27 percent and by 44 percent for the emotional aspect of pain. In contrast, the placebo cream reduced the sensation of pain by 11 percent and emotional aspect of pain by 13 percent.

“The MRI scans showed for the first time that mindfulness meditation produced patterns of brain activity that are different than those produced by the placebo cream,” Zeidan said.

Mindfulness meditation reduced pain by activating brain regions (orbitofrontal and anterior cingulate cortex) associated with the self-control of pain while the placebo cream lowered pain by reducing brain activity in pain-processing areas (secondary somatosensory cortex).

Another brain region, the thalamus, was deactivated during mindfulness meditation, but was activated during all other conditions. This brain region serves as a gateway that determines if sensory information is allowed to reach higher brain centers. By deactivating this area, mindfulness meditation may have caused signals about pain to simply fade away, Zeidan said.

Mindfulness meditation also was significantly better at reducing pain intensity and pain unpleasantness than the placebo meditation. The placebo-meditation group had relatively small decreases in pain intensity (9 percent) and pain unpleasantness (24 percent). The study findings suggest that placebo meditation may have reduced pain through a relaxation effect that was associated with slower breathing.

“This study is the first to show that mindfulness meditation is mechanistically distinct and produces pain relief above and beyond the analgesic effects seen with either placebo cream or sham meditation,” Zeidan said.

“Based on our findings, we believe that as little as four 20-minute daily sessions of mindfulness meditation could enhance pain treatment in a clinical setting. However, given that the present study examined healthy, pain-free volunteers, we cannot generalize our findings to chronic pain patients at this time.”

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This work was supported by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, R21-AT007247, F32-AT006949 and K99-AT008238; the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, NS239426; the Mind and Life Institute Francisco J. Varela Award; and the Wake Forest Center for Integrative Medicine.

Co-authors are: Nichole M. Emerson, B.S., Suzan R. Farris, B.S., John G. McHaffie, Ph.D., and Youngkyoo Jung, Ph.D., of Wake Forest Baptist; Jenna N. Ray, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte; and Robert C. Coghill, Ph.D., of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

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The Arthritis Foundation has provided some meditation techniques to ease arthritis pain

wildmind meditation newsPress release: Meditation has long been used by many people from around the world to reduce stress, soul search and improve overall physical and mental health. However, it seems that arthritis patients can also get some benefits in practicing the healthy activity.

The Arthritis Foundation has provided some meditation techniques to ease arthritis pain. According to experts, meditation is not like running a race, but it does require time and patience. Those who do not have either or both can still meditate.

According to experts, there are four meditation techniques that can help patients get started. First is to make the session brief. This is very helpful to individuals who do not have an hour to allocate for meditation.

Mark Thornton, author of “Meditation in a New York Minute: Super Calm for the Super Busy” and New York City-based meditation teacher, suggested that people should strive to meditate for at least one hour every day. He also added that doing it for a few minutes throughout the whole day can be as effective as meditating for one full hour.

“Experts also suggest that patients should ensure they are consistent in meditating, and this means doing it like working out at the gym,” said VitaBreeze Supplements spokesperson, Michelle O’Sullivan.

Thornton added that daily practice of meditation is highly recommended. However, patients can start meditating every other day if doing it on a daily basis seems overwhelming. They should make sure that they set a type of meditation schedule that they can maintain on a long-term basis.

Experts also suggest active meditation. Patients do not have to meditate in a dark room alone and sitting in the lotus position. They can actually do it in the shower, while washing dishes or even when standing in line at the grocery store. They can start doing active meditation by taking slow deep breaths. They need to tune into their surroundings such as the water flowing from the faucet or the smell of fresh lemons in the kitchen.

“It is also imperative that sufferers are able to adjust their focus. Patients will see whether or not they are doing it right when they notice their attention wandering, and they are able to get their focus back,” added O’Sullivan.

Meditation has been used by many people, especially those suffering from arthritis, to achieve pain relief. It is a natural treatment method and is not just believed to be effective, but also safe too.

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Mindfulness and chronic pain: every moment is a new chance

Pain always seems worse at night. Something about the silence amplifies the suffering. Even after you’ve taken the maximum dose of painkillers, the aching soon returns with a vengeance. You want to do something, anything, to stop the pain, but whatever you try seems to fail. Moving hurts. Doing nothing hurts. Ignoring it hurts. But it’s not just the pain that hurts; your mind can start to suffer as you desperately try to find a way of escaping. Pointed and bitter questions can begin nagging at your soul: What will happen if I don’t recover? What if it gets worse? I can’t cope with this. Please, I just want it to stop. . . .

You Are Not Your Pain Vidyamala BurchWe wrote this book to help you cope with pain, illness, and stress in times such as these. It will teach you how to reduce your suffering progressively, so that you can begin living life to the fullest once again. It may not completely eliminate your suffering, but it will ensure that it no longer dominates your life. You’ll discover that it is possible to be at peace, even if illness and pain are unavoidable, and to enjoy a fulfilling life.

We know this to be true because we have both experienced terrible injuries and used an ancient form of meditation known as mindfulness to ease our suffering. The techniques in this book have been proven to work by doctors and scientists in universities around the world. Mindfulness is so effective that doctors and specialist pain clinics now refer their patients to our Breathworks center in Manchester, UK, and to courses run by our affiliated trainers around the world. Every day we help people find peace amid their suffering.

This book and the accompanying CD reveal a series of simple practices that you can incorporate into daily life to significantly reduce your pain, anguish, and stress. They are built on Mindfulness-Based Pain Management (MBPM), which has its roots in the groundbreaking work of Dr. Jon  Kabat- Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. The MBPM program itself was developed by Vidyamala Burch (coauthor of this book) as a means of coping with the after effects of two serious accidents. Although originally designed to reduce physical pain and suffering, it has proven to be an effective stress-reduction technique as well. The core mindfulness meditation techniques have been shown in many clinical trials to be at least as effective as drugs or counseling for relieving anxiety, stress, and depression.

When it comes to pain, clinical trials show that mindfulness can be as effective as the most commonly prescribed painkillers, and some studies have shown it to be as powerful as morphine. Imaging studies show that it soothes the brain patterns underlying pain, and over time, these changes take root and alter the structure of the brain itself so that you no longer feel pain with the same intensity. And when it does arise, the pain no longer dominates your life. Many people report that their pain declines to such a degree that they barely notice it at all.

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