Mindfulness is something that is often mentioned by doctors and therapists. If you visit a pain clinic, they might suggest that you should practise mindfulness. Even the NICE guidelines on treating chronic pain suggest practising mindfulness rather than using pain medication.
So is mindfulness a cure for chronic pain? No, it’s not. And I don’t think many people would think it’s a good replacement for pain medication. However, we, the patients, need to learn a multitude of skills to use as coping techniques and practising mindfulness might be a skill worth learning.
If you practice it often, it can become a way of life, rather than just a technique to use now and again. That means, when you need it most, it will be easier to use.
I’m not an expert in mindfulness but I do use it as a way to cope with my pain. I was probably using mindfulness before I knew that what I was doing had a name. In one of my first blog posts, I wrote about enjoying the small things in life. It was about noticing things. That was probably me using my own version of mindfulness.
What Does it Mean to “Practise Mindfulness”
Mindfulness is described as staying in the moment without being critical or judgemental. It might seem like a difficult concept at first, but the more you practise it, the easier it might become.
It’s about being aware of yourself, your thoughts and emotions and being aware of what’s around you. It means tuning in and focusing more than normal. You use all of your senses to see, smell, hear, feel and even taste things differently. When you practise mindfulness, you might find you notice things that you don’t normally notice.
How Can Practising Mindfulness Help Pain?
Physical pain can cause numerous emotional and mental health issues and mindfulness can perhaps help some of those. Mindfulness can help people become more aware of how they are feeling. When they realise that they are stressed, anxious, feeling down or dealing with guilt, midfulness exercises might give them some breathing space. They might be able to take themselves back to a place of calm which, even if only briefly, will be welcome.
As well as that, some mindfulness exercises can act as a distraction from pain. When our pain is bad, it’s hard to focus on anything else because the pain demands our full attention. But when you practise mindfulness, you are training your mind to focus on something else. When we really focus our minds there might be less room to focus on our pain.
How to Practise Mindfulness
As I said earlier, mindfulness is about staying in the moment and being more aware. It’s about using each one of our senses to its maximum. Here are a few mindfulness exercises:
Spending a few minutes every day practising mindful breathing can help you to incorporate mindfulness into your life. During a stressful situation or when your pain is spiralling, you might be able to calm yourself if you spend a few moments breathing mindfully.
I try to practise mindful breathing a few times a day. I normally do it while I’m lying in bed or sitting in my chair but I also practise it outside in the garden or while sitting in the car. Breathing mindfully can be incorporated easily into your life.
Mindful breathing isn’t about counting breaths or breathing in a particular way. Instead, it’s about focusing on your breath while you breathe in your normal way. You can close your eyes or keep them open. You can do it however and wherever you feel comfortable.
Breathe in and out in your normal way focusing on each breath. Be aware of each breath as you inhale. Try to notice where the breath is as it’s being pushed into your lungs. Can you feel it in your nose, mouth or throat? Does your stomach rise? Or does your chest fill out? Now feel that breath as you exhale. Try to feel every sensation each time you inhale and exhale.
Remember that this isn’t a controlled breathing exercise so you don’t need to count, hold your breath or breathe in a certain way. Just try to focus on the natural rhythm of your breathing for a few minutes.
You might find this video about mindful breathing helpful.
Mindfulness Body Scanning
Mindfulness body scanning is a way of becoming aware of what’s happening in our bodies. If you’re living with pain, you’ll already be well aware of what’s happening, however, body scanning might help you. You put your focus on each part of your body from your head to your feet. During this process, you might find tightened muscles which you weren’t aware of. Tightened muscles will be causing more pain. We often tense our muscles because of pain or stress and if we are aware that those muscles are tightened up, we might be able to loosen them off.
The Raisin Exercise to Practice Mindful Eating
Very often, we snack through habit and don’t really think too much about the food. We might pick up a chocolate bar, eat a square, then another until suddenly, we’re surprised when the bar has finished. We might hardly remember eating the whole bar. I have a habit of doing just that, especially when my pain is bad.
There is a good exercise to practise mindful eating using a raisin. But, if you don’t have a raisin, you could use any type of food – a strawberry, a slice of orange or a piece of popcorn for example. You could even use a square of chocolate.
The raisin exercise helps you to focus on whatever you are going to eat. You start by looking at the raisin, studying it intently so you notice all the wrinkles, patterns and shapes on it. Then you can touch it to feel the texture before taking a deep breath to smell it. After studying the piece of food, you can put it into your mouth and then start chewing it very slowly.
Doing this really lets you savour the flavour and appreciate every bite. I wouldn’t suggest doing this with every meal you eat, but perhaps when you are snacking on something, you could try it.
Other Ways to Practise Mindfulness Every Day
There are easy ways to add some other simple mindfulness exercises into your life.
Learn to Use Your Senses
Look directly in front of you and focus on one thing. Imagine that you are an artist studying an object you are about to paint so that you notice everything in a new way. Look at the colours, shades, patterns and shapes. Is the object transparent or opaque? Notice how the light changes the colour. Look at the shadows and reflections.
Listen to any noise around you. Perhaps you can hear birds singing outside or a gentle hum of a bee. Or can you hear a fridge or heating system running? A clock ticking?
Try to feel your feet against the floor and your body in your chair. Touch something close to you. Feel the texture and temperature.
Breathe in deeply to smell any scents around you. Perhaps you’ll smell coffee or cookies or, if you’re outside, you might smell grass or flowers. Try to describe the aromas.
This is a very simple mindfulness exercise.
- Study five things with your eyes
- Touch and feel four different objects
- Listen intently for three sounds
- Breathe in the aromas of two things
- Taste one thing
Practise mindfulness exercises outside – smell flowers, watch birds, study clouds, listen to a river, feel the bark on a tree. Notice the things you don’t normally notice so that you view nature in a new way.
A big part of mindfulness is about being mindful of your intentions. That means that you’ll be making a point of taking care of yourself. You could adopt a daily mantra such as this.
I’m not suggesting that mindfulness is a cure for chronic pain. Unfortunately, it’s not but it might be another tool worth adding to your chronic pain toolbox.