What is mindfulness?

An approach called ‘mindfulness’ is increasingly being prescribed as a powerful approach to help with persistent pain. Mindfulness is “Paying attention, on purpose, to the present moment, non-judgementally” (Jon Kabat-Zinn, 1990).

Put simply, it is letting your brain relax sufficiently to become aware of what is going on around you and within you while not judging it or stressing about it.
Why bother with mindfulness when I’m in pain? The idea of raising your awareness of pain may sound strange at first:

“why would I want to become more aware of my pain?”

Many people respond to pain by trying to block it out or struggle against it. This can cause more problems, including emotional and physical tension which makes pain worse. Mindfulness encourages acceptance of the pain, calming the body’s natural instinct to tense up. Brain imaging studies show that mindfulness soothes brain patterns underlying different types of pain.

With mindfulness practice, the brain changes its response to pain, allowing a more manageable pain experience. This link might offer some insight: https://www.mindful.org/how-the-brain-can-change-your-experience-of-pain/. There is also an hour long lecture from Professor Mark Williams on the science of mindfulness: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wAy_3Ssyqqg

How does it work?

When we feel pain, the brain tends to ‘grab hold’ of it, not letting us think about anything else, as if pain is a speeding car heading towards us- an urgent threat to safety. This works well when the pain is a new or acute pain, but very unhelpful with pain that is persistent and long term. In practicing mindfulness, the brain is gradually ‘rewired’ to be aware of the pain but not respond to it as a threat, therefore turning down the ‘volume’ of pain signal.

How can I start?

https://www.Freemindfulness.org offers a variety of mindfulness exercises ranging from 3 minutes upwards under the section ‘free resources’.

https://www .mindful.org is full of great resources including guided meditations and articles about mindfulness.
Many people in chronic pain find “body scan mindfulness” particularly useful for relieving physical tension.

This is a link to a body scan mindfulness meditation by Jon Kabat-Zin https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=15q-N-_kkrU

What if I can’t do it?

Mindfulness is a skill which takes practice, like learning to ride a bicycle or a foreign language. It is very normal to feel distracted during practice, but don’t worry, as becoming aware of our busy mind is part of the mindfulness.

I just don’t have time

Once you are used to practicing mindfulness, it can weave into your other activities. Unlike ‘relaxation’ where traditionally you practice in a quiet space, mindfulness can be used during other activities and at any time. To start with it may need a degree of ‘space’ but once mastered, it can be used to manage your pain while you sleep or work, walk, play or exercise. Also, you can do mindfulness practices as short as a single mindful breath!