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Illustration by Brittany England

If you live life with chronic pain, you’ve probably gotten some unsolicited advice.

“Have you tried meditation?” your hairdresser asks.

“Having a positive mindset changes everything,” says your co-worker.

Of course, this type of comment usually has the opposite effect. These well-meaning words can make it seem as though the pain is all in your head.

The reality is that a mindful approach to pain has nothing to do with denying your experience. It’s all about getting real with it, accepting it, and even embracing it.

Far from “meditating the pain away,” mindfulness is a way to be more present with whatever you’re feeling.

Here’s what you need to know about how mindfulness can help support you when you’re living with chronic pain.

When many people hear the term “mindfulness,” they think about gratitude, letting go of negativity, doing yoga, and “good vibes only.”

This caricature stems from toxic positivity, the social requirement to be happy all the time. It has very little to do with real mindfulness.

One of the most important pillars of mindfulness is simply to acknowledge things as they are. You can’t do that if you’re denying your pain.

Surprisingly, practicing mindfulness doesn’t necessarily equate to being positive.

It doesn’t mean you have to plaster on a cheery, inspirational manner simply because people who are uncomfortable with disability or chronic pain may want that from you.

In reality, mindfulness is truly about recognizing, reflecting, and regulating.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction, teaches that mindfulness can be a tool to ease anxiety and pain–as well as anxiety about pain.

This approach is supported by research that indicates mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) may be an effective treatment for mood and anxiety disorders.

In his book, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, Kabat-Zinn emphasizes that a main element to mindfulness is not assigning judgment to your reality.

When you live with chronic pain, that reality often includes discomfort. This is why mindfulness and chronic pain can sometimes seem contradictory.

As the body experiences pain, it can go into survival mode. It sends signals to the brain to say that something’s not right and it needs to be fixed right away.

More often than not, it’s easier to distract the brain and avoid thinking about pain than it is to actually sit through it.

While this is an important tactic in moments of extreme distress, it can also create a gap in the connection between the body and mind.

Mindfulness can begin to heal this gap.

According to research, mindfulness has been shown to:

  • ease anxiety and depression
  • encourage kindness and compassion toward the self and others
  • reduce the impact of pain on everyday life
  • help develop coping strategies for chronic pain

These results are promising for people with chronic pain.

At the same time, it’s important to note that using mindfulness to achieve a specific goal can actually take you out of the present moment, preventing you from accepting what is.

While mindfulness can be an effective tool, the essence of mindfulness is about not being attached to the results.

“Meditation is the only intentional, systematic human activity which at bottom is about not trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else, but simply to realize where you already are.”

―Jon Kabat-Zinn

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Before looking at the intersection of chronic pain and mindfulness further, we must first understand what mindfulness actually is outside of this societal perception.

Mindfulness is not a solution-focused practice. It is a way of seeing and being.

Mindfulness is a practice that’s existed for thousands of years and has been a staple in many different religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism.

Though the practice is unique for each individual, the key concepts behind it remain relatively constant. These concepts include:

These four categories are essential to successfully practicing mindfulness and reaping the benefits of the practice.

Though they don’t cover all the pillars of mindfulness, these principles can help to demystify the confusion, anxiety, and judgment that often surrounds being in pain.

Being aware of the present

To begin, being mindful means being aware of this moment in time.

It’s natural for our brains to bring up the past or jump forward into the future. “Should haves” and “what ifs” become repeating anxieties that aren’t easy to block out.

Instead of ruminating about things out of your control, the idea with mindfulness is to acknowledge what’s happening right now.

Sometimes, running through the five senses over and over again can train your brain to be more present in general.

When you find that thoughts about the past and future lessen, you can move toward introspection.

Remember that this isn’t going to be a one-and-done process, or even a linear one. The nature of the mind is that it loves to think.

Don’t be discouraged as you continue to bring yourself back to the present movement each time your thoughts drift away–and they will. This process is the whole point.

Turning the awareness inward

Self-reflection involves looking inward and noticing the physical, emotional, and mental sensations that are occurring.

This is where mindfulness with chronic pain can become a little daunting.

When you’re constantly in pain, it’s normal to want distractions from it. Acknowledging the aches, the sharpness, the discomfort 24/7 is exhausting.

However, taking a small amount of time out of your day to check in with yourself can bring a sense of healing.

Having strong self-awareness can help you to recognize when something is amiss or even to differentiate between the types of pain you’re feeling.

Is it an ache? Is it coming from one place in particular? These are all helpful things to be aware of, not only for the sake of self-knowledge but to strengthen your sense of self-advocacy.

“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”

―Jon Kabat-Zinn

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Developing a sense of agency

From self-reflection comes self-regulation.

This is where the effects of mindfulness start to fully come into play. Guided breathing or progressive relaxation are great ways to work toward self-regulation.

During this process, the body and mind are able to connect. You might feel more relaxed emotionally. As a result, your body could follow suit.

Neutrality, non-judgment, and compassion

Lastly, being mindful means being neutral — to an extent.

When it comes to pain, we automatically think of those sensations as negative or something “bad.”

While pain definitely feels bad, it doesn’t need to have this attribute. Your body is not “wrong” or “bad” for feeling pain. Rather, it simply… feels it.

The point of recognizing and releasing judgment is to let go of the natural human impulse to categorize and react to whatever it is we’re feeling.

When we view something as “bad,” our instinct is to fix it or get rid of it. When it comes to chronic pain, there isn’t always a solution. Letting go of this need to fix, change, or correct can be incredibly freeing.

Instead of a feeling of impotency, it can lead to a feeling of agency and freedom from the pressure to make things “better.”

Accepting one’s current reality of chronic pain can help to ease the grieving process that often comes with a lifelong condition. It can also help those going through pain to process their experiences.

Having pain is a cycle that often feels like it will never end. However, mindfulness takes the timeline out of the equation.

It asks you to be present, be neutral, and be human all at once.

Now let’s look at how to realistically apply mindfulness practice to your everyday life.

There are three things to keep in mind:

  • Environment matters.
  • Comfort isn’t always possible.
  • Set your own goals.

The great thing about mindfulness is that it can be practiced anywhere: in a car, at work, in the middle of the floor.

Still, choosing the right environment for your own personal mindfulness practice can make a huge difference.

There’s no right or wrong place to practice mindfulness, but when you have chronic pain, it’s important to prioritize an environment that will work well with the needs of both your body and mind.

Maybe this means starting your mindfulness practice in a bed or on a couch surrounded by pillows. Wherever you choose to center yourself, be cognizant of where you are.

One way to acknowledge your environment and ground yourself as preparation for your mindful practice is to do the 5-4-3-2-1 technique.

Try it

  1. Take a look at your surroundings.
  2. Tune in to all five senses.
  3. Ask yourself, “What do I see? What do I hear? What do I smell?”
  4. Sit with the sensations in the body as they arise, even those that are painful or uncomfortable.
  5. Release any judgments, assessments, or a sense of needing to “fix” anything.
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Comfort isn’t always possible

Even with the right environment, being entirely comfortable is not always an obtainable goal, especially on bad pain days.

In these moments, remember that mindfulness asks you to embrace your reality as it is in the present moment.

For those moments when you just can’t find relief from pain, it’s OK to embrace the discomfort. Don’t assign judgment to it.

Practice saying, “I am uncomfortable,” and that’s it.

[Not], “I should be able to get comfortable,” or forcing yourself to stay perfectly still.

Go ahead, scratch that itch. Shift your legs and tilt your hips to alleviate that uncomfortable pressure.

You and your body are allowed to be. Be uncomfortable, be irritated, be in pain. This is non-judgment and compassion in action.

Set your own goals with mindfulness

You should always set your own goals with mindfulness rather than taking the advice of others who don’t know what you’re experiencing.

If your goal is pain relief, go for it.

If it’s body awareness, right on.

If it’s simply a way to dedicate 5 minutes to yourself, then that’s what it should be.

Your reasons are valid.

In the end, your mindfulness practice will most likely take you places you didn’t expect.

Stay in tune with yourself and your needs through the journey.

Mindfulness, like life, is a process. Wherever you end up, know that it’s not the end. It’s just another beginning.

Aryanna Denk is a disabled writer from Buffalo, New York. She holds an MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University in Ohio, and writes often about her own experiences living with multiple chronic illnesses. When she isn’t writing, Aryanna works as an instructor and disability advocate at a local university. Learn more about her by visiting her Twitter.