Mindfulness for Chronic Pain and Depression
Chronic pain and depression are widespread issues on the rise in our society. Though medical intervention can effectively alleviate chronic pain and depression for many people, long-term solutions that take a holistic approach to healing are greatly needed to restore wellbeing.
One of these solutions is seemingly opposed to the conventional medical approach of getting rid of pain as soon as possible. Mindfulness is an approach to wellbeing that allows the chronic pain or depression sufferer to acknowledge their discomfort non-judgmentally and with curiosity—instead of avoiding it.
Recent waves of research indicate that mindfulness for chronic pain and mindfulness for depression can be an even more effective symptom-management tool than painkillers, antidepressants and other pharmaceuticals. Here we’ll explore what mindfulness is, what the research says about its effects on chronic pain and depression and how to practice mindfulness in your daily life.
What Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness roots date back thousands of years to Chinese Buddhist monks who practiced a form of meditation called Ch'an—a word that’s pronounced “Zen” in Japan where the practice later spread to. Buddhist practitioners of Zen believed that the answers to life’s questions are found within and that by spending time in meditation, mindful of your inner world, you could reach enlightenment.
For highly practiced Zen Buddhist monks, the core of the practice is to observe the mental loop that’s on auto-play in the logical thinking mind. By observing this mental chatter, practitioners effectively dissolve any power it has over their emotional or physical state. In essence, their practice allows them to move into the present moment as the “observer” and simply notice what’s happening in the mind and body. This leads them to discover that they are not their thoughts and that their thoughts are just things.
Modern Day Mindfulness
Today, these same principles apply in modern, secular contexts. Models like the Mindfulness-Based-Stress-Reduction (MBSR) program are an updated approach to mindfulness as a tool for modern day issues. Developed in 1979 by Jon Kabat-Zinn, MBSR’s specific purpose is to address ailments like chronic pain, depression and anxiety—conditions plaguing our modern society.
With these models, mindfulness helps the practitioner move away from the judgment of pain, anxiety or depression and move towards understanding more about the condition. The practitioners are encouraged to notice how their intellectual nature may actually be causing more suffering than necessary. Like the monks learned they were not their thoughts, chronic pain sufferers can learn that they are not their pain.
Latest Mindfulness Research
Mindfulness sounds great in theory and its thousands of years of existence seem to validate it. However, for westerners used to science-based medicine, the benefits of mindfulness for pain or disease demand a more concrete explanation.
Over the past several decades, researchers have set out to accomplish just that. Scores of investigations and clinical trials from experts at leading institutions have turned up evidence that mindfulness meditation is beneficial for psychological and physical health. This is especially interesting regarding its effectiveness for chronic pain, depression and anxiety, which co-occur in an estimated 50% of cases.
Pain Tolerance in Zen Monks
To test the benefits of mindfulness for chronic pain, researchers at the University of Montreal compared pain tolerance levels in Zen monks with those of non-meditators. They found that the Zen monks had an 18% lower rate of sensitivity to pain than the non-meditators. MRI results showed that the practiced Zen monks had a thickening in the orbitofrontal cortex compared to the non-meditators, suggesting that this area of the brain is responsible for the meditation-based pain reduction.
They also found that because the Zen monks had slower breathing rates (an aspect of mindfulness practice) it helped them reduce their sensitivity to pain in the present moment. Finally, because of the uncomfortable posture that meditators are positioned in for extended periods of time, it’s likely that Zen monks build up their pain tolerance progressively, further developing these parts of their brains.
Mindfulness vs. Painkillers
Though these results are interesting, most people can’t relate to the life of a Zen monk. For a more realistic view of how mindfulness can help, researchers from the University of California San Diego compared two groups. One group was instructed on how to properly perform mindfulness meditation and the other placebo group that was told they would be practicing mindfulness meditation but wasn’t given proper directions on how to do so.
After four days of 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation per day, researchers found through brain imaging scans that the group of genuine mindfulness meditators reduced their pain response to the painful heat administered by the researchers by 44%. This was compared to the group of placebo meditators who reduced their pain by 24%, which is still a fairly significant reduction.
Another clinical research group administered the same test but with one dose of morphine instead of meditation and the results showed a reduction in pain by 20%.
Practicing Mindfulness for Chronic Pain and Depression
Studies like these and many more are showing that consistent, daily effort practicing mindfulness does, in fact, have significant benefits for reducing chronic pain. While researchers still don’t understand exactly why it works, it likely has to do with the intentional and consistent practice of true mindfulness (present-moment and non-judgmental awareness of the breath) and its effects on the brain and physiology—just as was discovered in the brain images of the Zen monks.
Because chronic pain is often linked to depression and anxiety, mindfulness has shown to be beneficial for these conditions as well. Because of the mind-body connection, mental distress often causes physical discomfort—and vice versa. By bringing non-judgmental awareness to both your physical and emotional sensations, practitioners can address a range of symptoms.
For the millions of people suffering from this co-morbidity—meaning they battle both chronic pain and depression at the same time—mindfulness could be a holistic solution for improving their quality of life.
What Type of Conditions Can Mindfulness Help With?
From the hundreds of studies that have been conducted over the years, it’s clear that mindfulness is a versatile practice with benefits for emotional, physical and mental conditions across the spectrum. It may be a beneficial practice for people suffering from virtually any condition associated with pain and mental health to help manage symptoms and improve quality of life.
Some of the conditions that mindfulness has been studied as a therapy for include:
- Tension headaches
- Back pain
- Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Heart disease
When looking at the results from various studies, researchers are clear that mindfulness meditation appears to be most beneficial for chronic pain, depression and anxiety. While it’s not a cure, experts feel that mindfulness is a safe, beneficial form of self-care that is accessible to everyone.
Tips for Practicing Mindfulness
For anyone interested in practicing mindfulness to help manage their chronic pain and depression, it's important to have a realistic understanding that mindfulness is by no means a quick fix. In fact, its delayed results are exactly what appear to make it effective. This is perhaps why some people are hesitant to begin the practice. It takes time and commitment, which can be in short supply for busy people.
Despite this, there are ways to incorporate mindfulness into your daily routine that won’t require immense sacrifice. Here are some tips on getting started:
- Consistent Daily Practice: Research has shown that just 20 minutes a day of mindfulness meditation practice is enough to improve chronic pain, depression and anxiety. Be sure to schedule this in at the same time, same place every day to keep yourself on track. Remember that mindfulness is called a “practice” for a reason. It requires a consistent daily effort to notice any benefit.
- Go Easy on Yourself: Mindfulness in its truest nature is the practice on non-judgment. Most people get distracted, they fidget or they become bored if they’re forced to sit still for 20 minutes. This is normal and not something to criticize yourself over. Go easy on yourself and remember that getting distracted by your thoughts is all part of the practice.
- Work With a Teacher: As seen by the study involving the placebo meditation group, mindfulness really is a specific practice involving a deliberate technique. Many experts recommend working with a mindfulness teacher at first. This will ensure you’re performing it correctly and getting the full benefit of the practice.
Mindfulness and Relaxation Support From Relax The Back
To add more mindfulness and relaxation to your life, you need the right support tools. Relax The Back believes in the power of physical, emotional and mental wellbeing that comes from being more mindful of your posture.
Back support products can help you in your mindfulness meditation practice or in any aspect of your life—at work, home or in the car. Try our selection of ergonomic back cushions to help improve your posture and prevent chronic back and neck pain. For additional relaxation, use a handheld, self-massaging product that helps alleviate chronic neck and shoulder tension.
Take back your quality of life by combining mindfulness and relaxation practices that can help you manage chronic pain and stress.