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Mindful : June 2019
mindfulness meditation called Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), developed by Mark Wil- liams at Oxford University. “I immediately studied his book, The Mindful Way Through Depression. And then I had Dr. Williams teach me personally,” says Penman. “My pain subsided and I slashed my intake of pain- killers and other drugs by two-thirds about a month or so after the accident—I was initially taking 40 pills a day,” he told Mindful. Penman’s healing was so complete that he eventually hiked Britain’s 630-mile South West Coast Path—a goal he’d envisioned while in the hospital. He also be- came a meditation teacher and author of Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World. CHRONIC PAIN— A SILENT EPIDEMIC Chronic pain has been called our “silent epidem- ic,” says Fadel Zeidan, PhD, “PAIN IS BOTH MENTAL AND PHYSICAL, AND MEDITATION IS EXCEL- LENT AT CHANGING THE MENTAL ASPECT OF IT.” SARA LAZAR, PHD. assistant professor in the Department of Anesthesiol- ogy at the University of Cal- ifornia San Diego. Pinning down numbers of people suffering from chronic pain is tricky, because pain is subjective and we have no good way of measuring, he says. Official estimates range from over 25 million to 126 million Americans struggling with chronic pain each year—and Zeidan thinks that number could be significantly higher. Any pain that lasts more than three months is con- sidered “chronic,” according to the National Institutes of Health. It can be caused by an illness or an injury and can last for months or even longer. Chronic pain can also bring sleep disturbanc- es, fatigue, and appetite and mood changes. And it can limit your mobility—being in constant pain stunts your ability to take even a short walk, much less get to the gym or the yoga studio. As a result, your flexibility, strength, and stamina can take a nosedive. Zeidan is a mindfulness researcher (and teacher) who, through his clinical studies, has discovered that mindfulness affects the way the brain processes pain. In one study, for example, his team exposed mindful- ness meditators to painful stimulation. Through functional magnetic reso- nance imaging (fMRI), they discovered that mindful- ness affects areas of the brain that influence pain, including the subgenual an- terior cingulate cortex, the orbitofrontal cortex, and the right anterior insula. Mindfulness meditation, they found, reduces both the intensity of pain and self-reported feelings of the pain’s unpleasantness. HOW MINDFULNESS MEDITATION COMBATS CHRONIC PAIN Mindfulness triggers a neurological, pain-relieving response. But what also weaponizes mindfulness meditation against pain is that it helps you cultivate a nonjudgmental, accept- ing attitude toward the pain, says Sara Lazar, PhD, Associate Researcher in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “Pain is both mental and physical, and meditation is excellent at changing the mental aspect of it,” she says. “You change your relationship to pain so that it no longer rules your life,” she adds. What’s more, meditation promotes relaxation and combats the muscle tension and psychological stress that worsen pain, says La- zar. In Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was, in fact, originally creat- ed to ease chronic pain. “The key thing about using mindfulness to ease pain is to have no expecta- tions about changing the pain itself,” says Lazar. If you focus on getting rid of the pain, you won’t. But if you focus on reducing your stress and becoming mind- ful, the pain will lessen as a result of your practice. Experts agree that you don’t have to spend hours in mindful meditation to ease pain. “Many people gain some relief almost imme- diately, but it will return unless they continue to meditate for 10 to 20 min- utes a day,” says Lazar. “Mindfulness helps you turn down the ‘volume control’ on the brain’s pain-sensing networks,” says Penman: This ends up reducing the amount of pain you consciously feel. ● 24 mindful June 2019 mindful health ILLUSTRATIONBYVERÓNICAGRETCH/GETTY