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How Can We Change the Experience of Pain?

Reblogged from Huffington Post with permission of the author – our Course Director Dr Elizabeth Sparkes

Run, keep going, don’t look back! A tried and tested method and it doesn’t seem to work. Pain is a phenomena which is still yet to be completely understood by science. Both mental and physical pain generally bite you on the bum at some later stage if you try to ignore them. What we resist often persists.

I will never understand how your pain feels, I only know my own. Pain is often hidden, unlike a broken leg and therefore this complicates our relationship with it. The need to feel believed and understood can be so strong. Physical pain can be like two daggers, the first being the pain itself, the sensation, and the second dagger represents the turmoil that we experience through catastrophic and disruptive thoughts about having pain. Therefore pain is made up of primary suffering, and then secondary suffering. We can’t always remove the primary suffering but we do have ways of reducing and changing the secondary suffering, the tyranny of thoughts that accompany the pain and drive our mood.

Researchers studying neuroscience have shown that just a weeks worth of sitting with awareness of pain and engaging with meditation (following the breath), changes the brains response to pain. Being curious about the sensations themselves rather than getting caught up in thought about the impact of pain can make a difference. The flurry of activity in areas in the brain associated with relaying the sensory experience reduces while activity in areas that moderate pain increases. These moderating areas include those that inhibit and reduce negative and destructive thoughts and emotional responses. The pain doesn’t necessarily go but it becomes less attached to a whole host of mental torture, which is what increases our sensory experience.

To change the experience of pain, to reduce some of the secondary suffering we need to turn towards the pain. Understandably there are varying levels of pain and chronic pain, and therefore facing pain is sometimes easier said than done. If it feels ok spend some time with the pain, invite it in to your awareness. What are it’s qualities, where does it reside in the body? Does it have a shape or colour? Just give some attention to the raw sensation of the pain, be curious. Try not to judge what you are attending to, notice any judging thoughts and come back to the sensations alone. Don’t try to get rid of the pain, and notice the emotion you feel towards it. You are now becoming familiar, without all of the mental analysis, which is what makes the pain worse.

I am interested in the impact of women experiencing pelvic pain/endometriosis and how to best support these women. One of the MSc students at Coventry university that I supervise recently conducted a pilot study, looking into the impact of a mindfulness course on pelvic pain. Clair Dempsey identified some trends, women who completed the online course showed improvements in their quality of life and also reduced catastrophic thought. We hope to look at this on a wider scale soon.

Mindfulness won’t take the pain away necessarily, but it will change the experience of it. If we can change the experience of it then daily life will improve, our relationship to the pain will change and the impact it has on us will also change. We are not trying to change our thoughts, but separating our thoughts from the sensations.

Follow Dr Elizabeth Sparkes on Twitter: www.twitter.com/lizzeduarte

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