Pain, pain go away …

Enjoy this monthly mindfulness post from Dave Johnson, PhD, CNS- BC, LMFT, Employee Assistance Specialist.

I met my wife, Rosie, while I was working as a nurse in a burn treatment center.  My time working there was short-lived once we were engaged to be married, but Rosie ended up spending most of her 46-year career in burn prevention and treatment. I have vivid memories of terrible burns that required intensive and long term treatment, with pain management being a top priority.

Early in my career, I thought there was no pain greater than the intensity of burn pain, but of course I was wrong. Most burns heal and acute pain is more easily managed with medication and treatment. But the type of pain that is ruthless, relentless and untreatable, for whatever reason, undermines one’s spirit, quality of life, and even one’s will to live. 

As a practitioner and teacher of mindfulness, I was hesitant to write about pain.  I’ve read the books, articles and research about the benefits of mindfulness meditation for pain relief, but it’s hard to communicate that process in writing.  Stating that meditation somehow changes the relationship with pain sounds cliché.  In truth, attending a mindfulness meditation class is not about fixing pain, and any mindful tactic should always accompany a full medical workup. Mindfulness is an adjunct, after one gets full medical treatment for disease or injury.   

And so I ponder …

  1. Join.  Consider joining a mindfulness meditation program if you have chronic physical pain. In other posts, I’ve written about emotional pain but physical pain is a different beast. Don’t expect dramatic changes after attending one or two sessions. The work of mindfulness is easy to understand but requires diligence toward repeated practice. 

    Similar to deciding to start a healthy diet, you would not expect to feel the benefits of eating healthy without several weeks of the practice. It’s similar with the practice of mindfulness. We call mindfulness “practice” because you have to keep at it. Knowing how or why it works is not the same as allowing or inviting it into the awareness of pain to transform your relationship with pain. OK, I know that sounded naïve but it is true, and folks that have come to classes with chronic pain repeatedly have told me that their quality of life is better because of mindfulness.

 

  1. Observe.  Mindfulness creates a bit of headspace between the observed and the observer. For those who don’t have chronic pain, I encourage a little experiment the next time you have a slight burn, paper cut, toe stub or collision.  The challenge is to become an observer of the pain as it unfolds (stinging, burning, throbbing). Notice the flow of discomfort as you run it under cold water, apply ice, squeeze the body part, or jump up and down on your foot. What is the emotion? Chatter in your mind? Can you bring a bit of calm observation to the experience as the situation reveals itself? Maybe the calm is beneath or behind the pain. 

    Mindfulness starts with intention, and setting the intention of discovery and curiosity about pain is not intuitive to pain management. People will often push back when, with mindfulness, we go toward awareness of the pain, because often they have focused so hard on trying to ignore or distract themselves from it. Healthcare workers can and should help patients find causes and cures, but when that is not possible or hasn’t worked completely, another mechanism of relief can be found in shifting the awareness to a “watcher’s” perspective. Although this may be easy to understand it definitely requires a bit of practice.

 

  1. Body scan.  Words will not do the body scan justice. It’s kind of like describing how to water ski; You can’t get the full picture until you are actually being pulled behind the boat. In the body scan, you anchor by noticing the breath and gradually bringing awareness to scanning slowly from the top of your head to your feet or from your feet back up to your head. If you visualize a paper copier put on ultra-slow speed, you have a sense of what the scan might look like. 

    Slowly let go and sink into a more relaxed state. Slowing your breathing and having this awareness intentionally along the way can reduce musculoskeletal stress as well as aid in pain perception. Inhabiting each region of the body allows you to have full awareness of each section and be intentional about bringing a loving-kindness and self-compassion to all areas. Just as a mother soothes a child’s hurt, the body scan can create a bit of tenderness. Thoughts and emotions that are encountered along the way are acknowledged, perhaps even befriended. Although folks would like, or even expect, the pain to disappear, it is the relationship with pain that seems to shift with practice. Patience and consistency of practice can help with healing. Maybe a shift is recognizing that having pain does not automatically require suffering or that pain perception is not the embodiment of one’s self. 

 

  1. Hope.  I recently wrote about hope and can’t state enough that it is an important part of the pain journey. Hope is not the same as wishing things were different. Hope is an antidote that needs protected, cultivated and invited into one’s essence. Since mindfulness moves us toward noticing our auto-pilot thinking, you can look for hope as a mantra, anchor, or in the eyes of other folks that give us true presence when we have fear or feel helpless.

    Noticing hope in ourselves and others is helpful and has great physical benefits. Identifying a friend, relative, minister, counselor or confidant to express your emotions to puts into motion a healing force that pairs well with medical care and mindfulness for sure! Being told that you have to learn to cope with pain or change your mind about it sounds like the end of a ruthless road. Mindfulness meditation can be a new beginning.  If you are challenged to identify resources that might be helpful, consider contacting the Center for Healthy Living for a consultation.

 

“A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day.  A string of such moments can change your life.” – Kristin Neff (Author: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself: Self Compassion)

 

 

Other resources:
InvisibleInklings.com (sign up for free monthly word-based mindful healing exercises) from Dr. Dave Johnson and Kathy Curtis, healing artist.

For a free 1:1 in person or phone consultation with Dr. Dave or to find out about more on Mindfulness & Stress Management programs, contact the Parkview Center for Healthy Living at (260) 672-6500. Dr. Dave also provides on-site guidance for teambuilding and transformational leadership, among other topics. To learn more about Employee Assistance Programs for your company, call Business Development at (260) 373-9013. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) practice has been extensively researched and proven helpful for coping with stress and change, grief, healthy eating patterns, pain, anxiety, depression and many other chronic disease and autoimmune disorders.

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