At first glance, “mindfulness” meditation practices seem completely counterintuitive. If people are suffering from pain, shouldn’t they learn ways to not focus on their pain? Isn’t it better to block out the negative sensations? (Repression isn’t always such a bad thing…)
And yet, there’s some tantalizing evidence (much of it anecdotal) that aspects of mindfulness mediation can help people deal with chronic pain and various mental illnesses, such as depression. The virtue of being acutely aware of every sensation, even negative sensations, is that people become better able to modulate them. I wrote about a related study earlier this year for Best Life magazine, which coupled fMRI with aspects of mindfullness. Because patients with chronic back pain could see their pain represented in the brain – they paid exquisite attention to what they were feeling – they learned how to deal with the pain.
The good news is that while we can’t always realign our spines or fix our ruptured disks, we can control our perception of chronic pain. With the proper training, we can alleviate our own suffering. That, at least, is the optimistic conclusion of a recent Stanford study performed by Dr. Mackey and other researchers. The study used real-time fMRI brain imaging to teach people with chronic pain how to modulate their conscious response to the pain. Some of the subjects distracted themselves with pleasant thoughts, while others recited mantras or listened to soothing music. Despite the diversity of strategies, each of the patients could see the direct impact of his palliative thoughts. They watched as the specific parts of their brains associated with chronic pain gradually subsided in activity. They had become their own painkillers.
The results of the experiment were dramatic. Most of the chronic-pain patients reported a decrease in pain intensity, with an average decrease of 64 percent. The patients had stopped being the helpless victims of a structural abnormality in the body and could now focus on dealing with the pain in their minds. Simply knowing that they could control the pain made the pain less terrible.