While the causes of chronic pain are numerous, stress is known to exacerbate pain no matter where it comes from.
One of the most common ways to reduce stress and manage chronic pain without the use of prescription medication is through relaxation exercises like focused breathing, meditation, yoga, and even hypnosis. The reason this works is unlike acute pain, which is caused by a specific injury, there is a much stronger mind-body connection when it comes to chronic pain. Taking steps to make yourself more mindful can help reduce chronic pain as it triggers the brain to work to block out, or at least minimize the pain signals radiating from various sources throughout the body.
As the Atlantic points out, this has been studied quite a bit and the results have been promising, if not overwhelming.
“Studies conducted within the past 10 years have shown that meditation may be able to change the brain. Four areas of the brain involved in pain processing or emotional and behavioral regulation have been shown … to have differing activity levels during and after meditation. Seven other separate researchers have shown these same areas to be affected by meditation in other studies as well.”
Practicing meditation is free and easy. It can be done anywhere, and at any time.
“Studies suggest that meditating can increase pain tolerance, activity levels, and self-esteem and decrease anxiety, stress, depression, and use of pain medications,” says WebMD. “Mindfulness meditation has been used successfully in programs to reduce pain and improve mood in patients with chronic pain from a variety of conditions, including headache, low back pain, chest pain, and gastrointestinal pain.”
It’s not that meditation completely takes away pain. It helps by teaching people how to react to their pain. Knowing how to control your emotional reaction to your chronic pain can help it seem like less of shock when it’s experienced.
Even without practicing traditional methods of meditation, simple relaxation techniques can be used to great effect. Focused breathing, in which one takes deep, full breaths, holds it in, and exhales slowly and with purpose, can help with relaxation and the reduction of stress. Muscle relaxation techniques can involve slowly tensing, holding, and then relaxing specific muscle groups. Guided imagery involves focusing on pleasant images to replace stressful emotions. The NIH has a good primer on various relaxation techniques.
Exercise has also been known to help reduce the effects of chronic pain, but some are wary to push their already-aching bodies into strenuous activity. Yoga is a way to combine the mindfulness of meditation with moderate exercise. And according to studies, yoga can actually impact the brain to help modulate pain. This is from Psychology Today:
Yoga appears to bulk up gray matter through neurogenesis and strengthen white matter connectivity through neuroplasticity. After assessing the impact of brain anatomy on pain reduction, [Dr. Catherine Bushnell of the NIH] believes that gray matter changes in the insula or internal structures of the cerebral cortex are the most significant players involved in chronic pain. “Insula gray matter size correlates with pain tolerance, and increases in insula gray matter can result from ongoing yoga practice,” said Bushnell. Yoga practitioners have more gray matter than controls in multiple brain regions, including those involved in pain modulation.
Through a combination of meditation, relaxation exercises, and yoga, chronic pain sufferers have a way to control, modulate, and better understand their pain. All of these techniques benefit both mind and body, and greater overall health (both mental and physical) has been shown to ease the intensity of chronic pain.
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Written by Jackie Waters