Our Brain and Pain, Part 1: Mindfulness
Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is a condition caused by a faulty immune system and affects the wrist and small joints of the hand, such as the knuckles and the middle joints of the fingers. RA is the most common type of autoimmune arthritis. It’s a condition that causes one frequent, if not chronic, pain, with the painful swelling of the joints. It can be debilitating, significantly affecting the quality of one’s life.
There are a variety of treatments available for those with RA to control both the condition and reduce the pain. Low-impact aerobics, for example, can be effective in building muscle strength which protects the joints, and is a good preventative measure for additional joint damage. There have also been a lot of advancements in
treatment measures in the field of RA beyond exercise, however, which is good news. One treatment being investigated by the medical community is centuries’ old: Mindfulness. And now there’s medical evidence to suggest its efficacy.
What is Mindfulness?
Before discussing mindfulness and its potential effectiveness, however, let’s talk about pain for a minute, and how it impacts our life. When one experiences pain, the stressors, obsessive thinking, and fear of an onset of pain can magnify the effects of it. Mindfulness is a way to help one both control those knee-jerk reactions, as well as form a different relationship your brain–and body–has with pain.*
Mindfulness – a centuries’ old practice – may seem to be some kind of “New Age” mumbo-jumbo. But now there’s medical evidence to suggest the effectiveness of practicing mindfulness to help alleviate conditions of chronic pain.
Steven Rosenzweig, M.D., clinical associate professor and director of the Medical Humanities Program at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia states,”Mindfulness is the practice of bringing one’s full attention to the present moment…People in pain often react automatically to [what’s going on],” he continues. “You think I feel pain, and then the body tightens and you have a flurry of other thoughts like Pain is ruining my life.“
Why Practice Mindfulness?
Practicing mindfulness is a focusing of your conscious thoughts towards your pain and redefining your relationship to it. Rather than letting your body “tighten up” as soon as you feel pain, you instead focus your thoughts to first notice the distress you’re experiencing due to pain, and then help consciously re-define it cognitively.
For example, when you “feel” the pain, you want to try to consciously and intentionally take sort of a step back, shifting awareness to the pain. Confronting the pain rather than avoiding it is the goal, with the objective of minimizing what pain does to us, and how we relate to it. We want to recognize that 1) pain is happening, 2) objectify it, in a way, so that you can then 3) allow the rest of your body NOT to tense up around the pain. Doing so has been shown to ease pain.
More Medical Evidence
Consider a 2011 study published in Annals of Rheumatic Diseases. In the study, 73 Norwegian volunteers who had rheumatoid arthritis and other joint diseases practiced mindfulness exercises over 15 weeks. The result showed their stress and fatigue levels were significantly reduced.
Other studies have also been conducted. Dr. Rosenzweig and colleagues at Drexel University conducted one in 2009. They taught mindfulness-based exercises to 133 people with chronic pain conditions for eight weeks. The participants, especially those with arthritis, reported considerable improvement in pain and physical function. It was most effective when they also practiced the mindfulness exercises at home. A 2008 study combined mindfulness exercises along with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and other wellness education, since those suffering from RA also have high instances of stress and depression. The reduction of stress, researchers said, was especially important, since stress can increase inflammation.
Our Brain and Impulse
Now, this may sound implausible too, but as a corollary, let’s look for a minute at nervousness. What is nervousness? It’s our body’s way of saying to us, “you’re in danger.” Your heart begins to accelerate, your mouth may get dry, hands and brow are possibly sweaty, and so on. Now, genetically, this impulse serves a very useful reaction if indeed we are in serious danger. It happens before we think about it. But what about nervousness when not really in any serious danger, like giving a presentation, or introducing yourself to other people at a party? Are you “actually” in bodily danger? No. It’s an automatic reaction to a situation we feel discomfort being in.
By practicing mindfulness, we allow our conscious brain to enter into what our unconscious part of our brain automatically triggers, and by doing so, allow our bodies to relax, take a step back, and realize that what we are experiencing is indeed not pleasant, but that yes: you can get through it.
Our brains are powerful agents. And there’s a whole lot we don’t know about them that scientists and medical professionals are still investigating. However, one thing seems evident: when we practice not letting our irrational impulses hijack us, doing so can lead to a healthier way of thinking, which of course means a healthier life.
*Note that mindfulness should not take the place of seeing your doctor if you’re experiencing pain that may require examination.
- ‘Ease Rheumatoid Arthritis Pain with Mindfulness’, Lifescript, February 9, 2016, accessed April 4, 2016, http://www.lifescript.com/health/centers/rheumatoid_arthritis/articles/ease_rheumatoid_arthritis_pain_with_mindfulness.aspx.
- Zangi, Heidi A, et al. “A Mindfulness-Based Group Intervention to Reduce Psychological Distress and Fatigue in Patients with Inflammatory Rheumatic Joint Diseases: A Randomised Controlled Trial.” Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases 71.6 (2012): 911–917. Web. 4 Apr. 2016.
- Jason C. Ong, Shauna L. Shapiro, and Rachel Manber, Combining Mindfulness Meditation with Cognitive-Behavior Therapy for Insomnia, 39, no. 2 (November 14, 2007), accessed April 4, 2016, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3052789/.