If you’re an active person who loves nothing more than burning off some energy at the gym, the mere thought of meditation might make you feel a little uncomfortable. The concept of meditation to relieve pain might appear even more far-fetched, but research is showing increasing benefits to alternative treatment (for example, breathwork techniques like those used by tension release therapy (TRT) company Trace Body Rejuvenation).
Pain is both complicated and subjective. Everybody’s tolerance level differs, and what might rate highly on the scale for one person might barely register with another. On the same principle, what works for one patient in terms of treatment might not be as beneficial to another person with the same ailment: it’s a matter of finding what works for you.
All in the Mind
Dr. John Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as “being in touch with the fullness of one’s being”. While we tend to think of the mind and body as separate states, there’s actually evidence for a neurological connection between the two.
Various regions of the brain have specific roles to play in how pain is processed. When nerves (called nociceptors) detect tissue damage, they transmit messages along the spinal cord to the brain. Once there, the brain interprets these sensations and in some cases releases chemicals like dopamine to counteract the unpleasant feeling.
Since we all interpret pain differently, there are ways you can “train” using mindfulness to cope with pain, whether acute or chronic. This is known as neuroplasticity, and one way to achieve this is through meditation.
A Workout for your Brain
One study examining functional MRI scans of people after a six-week mindfulness course found that those who completed the course experienced a significantly lower degree of subjective pain when exposed to a thermal stimulus than those who had not.
Scans showed those who had completed the course had strengthened key neural pathways related to pain relief, suggesting that by modulating their brain connections, they were better able to manage their subjective experience of pain.
Find Your Flow
If you’ve ever watched your favorite athletes closely, you’ll recognise the focus they are able to summon at critical moments. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to this a “flow”, a state of mind where you are focussed solely on the activity at hand and nothing else.
The same principle applies to mediating for pain: while it might seem counterintuitive, actively rejecting the experience of pain can exacerbate things (the idea that “what you resist persists”). It’s a technique used by professional athletes worldwide, helping increase focus, support healthy sleep, cope with stress and relieve pain.
Think Like an Athlete
While it might not look like you’re doing much on the surface, In truth, the practice of meditation is tough going. Think of it as a work-out for your brain that can help bring it into sharper focus, keeping you at the top of your game, whatever you play.
In their flow state, all athletes are meditating in their own way – but there are a notable few who actively practice mindfulness including Kerri Walsh and LeBron James (who even has his own spot on the Calm meditation app). The late Kobe Bryant was a huge advocate of mediation and its capacity to heal the body and quieten the mind.
Ask your Clinician
Athletes around the world are now becoming more open about the mind-body link, in particular their own experiences of mental health, showing that in order to perform at your best, you also need to feel your best emotionally and mentally.
While the benefits of meditation are clear, less is known about the potential effects on those with psychosis (in some cases, it’s thought to exacerbate symptoms), so if you are at all unsure, speak with your doctor before starting any mediation practice. If this is unsuitable, there are plenty of other pain management options you can explore with them.
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