Mindpath Health’s Kiana Shelton, LCSW, discusses why mindfulness could be an important strategy in pain reduction toolbox.

Mindfulness Could Be an Important Strategy in Pain Reduction Toolbox_Kiana Shelton_Mindpath health

At this point, most of us are familiar with the concept of mindfulness. Through this ancient practice of focusing on sensory stimuli like our breathing or bodily sensations, we can be more present in the moment, and that can effectively reduce distress.

The benefits of mindfulness-based therapy, which have been proven through research, include stress management, greater relationship satisfaction, and decreased symptoms of depression.

Mindfulness meditation has even been used to relieve physical pain, which may come across as counterintuitive at first, since mindfulness can be about focusing on bodily sensations. But a new study exploring this function of mindfulness has revealed the underlying mechanism at work in the mind.

Researchers are excited by the potential for a safe, accessible, and non-opioid method of managing pain.

The Research

The study consisted of 40 participants who underwent brain scanning while painful heat was applied to their leg. Afterward, they were asked to rate the level of pain they felt during the experiment.

Participants were then split into two randomized groups. One group completed four mindfulness training sessions, while the second group simply listened to an audiobook.

After completing their sessions, participants once again underwent brain scanning during the application of painful heat to their leg. This time, the mindfulness group was instructed to meditate during the experiment, while the second group was instructed to rest with their eyes closed.

The results showed a significant reduction in neural and behavioral pain responses for the mindfulness group when compared to the control group. Participants reported a 33% reduction in pain unpleasantness and 32% reduction in pain intensity.

Researchers explain that the pain relief was moderated by weakening the connection between the thalamus and the precuneus, which are areas of the brain related to sensory environment and the “quality of awareness of self.”

By separating the feelings of pain from the sense of self through mindfulness meditation, participants were able to alleviate their discomfort.

“You train yourself to experience thoughts and sensations without attaching your ego or sense of self to them, and we’re now finally seeing how this plays out in the brain during the experience of acute pain,” said lead study author Fadel Zeidan, PhD, in a release.

The Brain and Pain

Pain interacts with the brain on many levels. Our sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for our fight or flight mechanism, is linked to the way we respond to the perception of pain or anticipatory stress.

Kiana Shelton, a licensed clinical social worker with Mindpath Health, points out that when we meditate, we begin to calm that system. And when this happens, we can transition into our parasympathetic nervous system, or PNS.

“The PNS is what allows us to rest and relax,” Shelton says.

“The goal is that consistent use of a mindful meditation practice could make one’s brain more tolerant of pain by being able to bring your PNS online faster through a meditation practice,” she explains.

Whether you start a mindfulness meditation practice in a psychotherapy session or by looking it up on YouTube, “no effort goes unnoticed by the body,” Shelton says. Like a muscle, the mind will get stronger and improve with practice and repetition.

“Mindfulness meditation is the ultimate exercise,” she says.

“When we live with pain, sometimes it is our negative or anticipatory thoughts about the pain that intensify their impact physiologically. I remind clients to never underestimate the power of intention and mindfulness as a determining factor in one’s ability to reach a desired goal.”

It’s important to note, however, that mindfulness is not a one-size-fits-all strategy.

People often put pressure on themselves to excel at meditation when first beginning a mindfulness practice, and this can actually increase stress.

Starting out with short periods of practice and even trying methods outside of meditation like journaling, yoga, or walking outdoors can increase the likelihood that you’ll see its benefits.

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Kiana Shelton, LCSW

Katy, TX

Kiana has over 11 years of experience working with adults. She provides a safe atmosphere to help her patients cope with challenges. Utilizing cognitive behavioral therapy techniques from a person-centered and trauma informed lens. Kiana also provides LGBTQ+ care and can assist with navigating major life transitions such as birth/adoption, foster care issues and grief/loss. She follows Maya Angelou’s quote: ... Read Full Bio »

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