Mindfulness is a specific form of meditation that has been proven to reduce pain. Clinical trials have shown it to reduce chronic pain by 57%, and accomplished meditators can achieve even higher levels of pain relief. Other studies have shown that it does not use the body’s own natural production of opioids or endorphins to accomplish these reductions, so how does it work?
The practice of mindfulness brings quiet, focused attention to the body and its sensations. Typical exercises help you observe with the mind’s eye, and just notice what is happening. When we are in pain, our minds spend a lot of time thinking about it, trying to solve it, and worrying if it will ever end. Mindfulness allows you to observe painful sensations as you feel them, and quiet the mind’s reactions and struggle.
This process has the biological effect of soothing the brain patterns of your pain perception. With regular mindfulness practice, these changes will alter the structure of the brain itself so that pain is not felt with the same intensity.
This works because there are two layers to the perception of pain. First, there is the sensation of the illness, injury, or damage to the body that is causing the pain. Second, there is the brain’s reaction to this sensation. The brain is trying to protect the body from further damage or injury and so it focuses on the sensations of pain. This effectively turns up the “volume” and increases suffering. For chronic pain, this process becomes a feedback loop, and the brain gets better and better at feeling more pain.
Mindfulness practice effectively turns the volume back down again, so that the brain does not amplify the pain signals the body is sending. This in turn reduces the pain-related anxiety, stress, and depression, and creates room for the body to begin to relax and then heal.