On a larger scale, experiencing pain on a chronic basis can cement negative emotions about our bodies, our thoughts, and the world around us.
The constant pain trains the mind to dread further pain — in fact, people living with chronic pain note that the anticipation of pain can sometimes be worse than the pain itself. As a result, a comprehensive approach to managing pain requires more than medication and physical therapy. Learning to regulate our emotional responses to pain and finding ways to use the mind to mediate the sensations our bodies feel are both key strategies to reduce pain.
In 2019, researchers at the University of Rochester recruited college students for an interesting experiment: first, participants were asked to complete a series of simple tasks after dunking their hands in extremely cold water. Next, they were told they’d have to complete the whole process again — freezing cold water and all. Among the participants who were anticipating another cold water challenge, those who engaged in mindfulness reported having fewer negative feelings about the discomfort they felt and tended to think less about the pain overall.
Of course, the pain was still (unfortunately for them 😭) very much real and present. The difference is that mindfulness practice provides an escape from the automatically negative associations we have with pain, instead offering us the space to reframe painful experiences in ways that acknowledge the pain but don’t let negative thinking overwhelm us.
Evolutionarily, we are all predisposed to fear pain and take steps to avoid it. That’s why when you touch a hot surface, your body reacts immediately by pulling your hand away — often before your conscious brain has had a chance to recognize just how hot that coffee was or how you might have gotten burned. These are natural instincts that protect us from harm in positive ways.
Reframing our relationship to pain involves taking charge of so-called “automatic thinking” that leads us to avoid situations that have the potential to cause pain. Telling yourself that the pain will always be this bad or that there is nothing that can help you feel better reinforces emotions of helplessness and despair, which in turn make you feel even worse. While, in the moment, you may think that there really is nothing that can help with your pain, these thoughts can lead you to a very negative place.
Recognizing negative thoughts, accepting them for what they are, and challenging yourself to work towards an outlook that acknowledges the things in your world that bring a smile to your face are much more productive ways to confront pain. Still skeptical?? Join us on this brief thought exercise...
Let’s say you’re having a rough pain day. Everything just hurts and you can’t even find a way to get comfortable in bed. You think to yourself, “This is ruining my life and it’s probably going to be even worse tomorrow.”
Again, these feelings are valid and natural! Pain sucks and it sucks even worse when nothing seems to help make you feel better. The only problem is that focusing on the negative impact of pain and thinking about future pain doesn’t help make you feel better either. So, let’s try something a little different:
Again, you’re having a rough pain day. Everything just hurts and you can’t even find a way to get comfortable in bed. You think to yourself, “This is ruining my life and it’s probably going to be even worse tomorrow.” You realize that you are starting to have negative thoughts because you are so uncomfortable. You’re worried about the possibility of being in pain like this for a long time. You recognize that you feel frustrated and sad. You remember that the last time you had a flare like this you enjoyed cuddling in bed with your dog and scrolling through funny tweets on Twitter.
You acknowledge that, while you can’t know whether you’ll feel better tomorrow, watching movies in bed with your favorite puppy will lift your spirits today.
It’s a framework supported by pain experts at the University of Michigan who suggest 1) identifying negative thoughts, 2) questioning those thoughts, and 3) working to reframe those thoughts in more helpful ways in order to better cope with chronic pain. Accordingly, when you’re struggling with pain (i.e. This is ruining my life and it’s probably going to be even worse tomorrow), try your best to recognize these thoughts early.
Challenge these thoughts with evidence of how you’ve found ways to do the things you enjoy despite physical limitations (i.e. cuddling in bed with your dog and scrolling through funny tweets on Twitter). And, lastly, use that information to explore more positive scenarios (i.e. while you can’t know whether you’ll feel better tomorrow, watching movies in bed with your favorite puppy will lift your spirits today).
You can start out slow by trying some of these thought exercises when you’re having less pain. And please give yourself a whole lot of grace when attempting any of these approaches: it’s really difficult to try to put an optimistic twist on something that is causing you so much discomfort. But, with practice, we hope that mindfulness can help you get on track toward feeling better.