How Mindfulness Can Transform The Pain In Your Life

Live in the moment.

Stop dwelling on the past or worrying about the future and be present.

Every moment is a gift.

These are words you might say to the fortunate people in your life. The kind of people who just want to appreciate things more. Who have things good right now. The kind of people who want to appreciate the view from their climate-controlled offices. Who want to make the most of the time spent with their dogs.

You wouldn’t say those words to someone writhing in pain on a hospital bed. You wouldn’t say those words to a homeless man on the street. You wouldn’t even say those words to someone with a bad hangover.

Forget about what could be, and focus on the incredible pain you’re in right now!

Mindfulness is a gimmick. Just like The Secret (I mean, tell a refugee that thinking positive thoughts will make good things come to them), positive affirmations (tell yourself you’re an American and you’ll be one!), and healing cancer through visualisations (pffft).

That’s what I thought at least. I bundled it with all the pseudo-psychology and mysticism I had always resented. It offers nothing more than platitudes for privileged people, who have great moments to live in.

And that’s why it sounded so very stupid when I was told to use it for my depression. Why would I want to live in the moment? The moment is terrible!

The problem is, the people telling me to use mindfulness were a team of psychiatrists, therapists, and nurses. Professionals who had studied degrees in scientific fields. The people who were meant to hold the cure. Since I had tried pretty much everything else, I had to listen to them.

Types of Pain

I’ve never been in tremendous physical pain. I have felt physical pain, but rarely to the point that it has debilitated me, and never for an extended period of time. I don’t know what it’s like to suffer in that way. But I can’t imagine it could possibly be worse than the pain of depression.

At worst, it can bring on the pain of depression. At least that’s what I hope – I stand to be corrected and hope I never am.

Someone who hasn’t experienced major depression cannot understand just how excruciating the pain is. It’s the sort of pain that makes just staying alive seem like a ridiculous proposition. That leads millions of people to suicide every year.

Using mindfulness to treat depression is therefore not about advising those suffering to appreciate the fresh air or to stop dwelling on the past or future. It’s about using the present to transform the pain.

Mindfulness Makes Pain Manageable

Before I begin describing how mindfulness can transform pain, I must qualify that the more pain you’re in, the more difficult this lesson is to learn. Ideally, mindfulness skills are learned when the pain, mental or physical, is moderate. Someone writhing in pain is never going to appreciate being told to live in the moment.

However, mindfulness can change your entire understanding of pain. Here are some basic assumptions we make about pain:

  • Pain is bad
  • We must avoid pain at all costs
  • A life of pain is not worth living
  • A good life has more pleasure than pain
  • It’s best to check out of the painful moments in life

All of those assumptions seem logical. On some levels, there is nothing more logical. Of course, you can challenge the logic.

  • Pain tells you something is wrong, serving an important function
  • Certain types of pain, such as sadness, are necessary to feel to remain human
  • Judging whether life is worth living is ultimately futile
  • And so on

But mindfulness doesn’t ask you to question those assumptions. It politely requests that you put them aside. Stop judging the pain, and simply feel it. You’re still thinking about how bad this is? Okay, observe that judgment and let it go. You notice yourself trying to check out and avoid the pain? Okay, acknowledge the urge and bring yourself back.

Stripped of the judgments, something remarkable happens to pain. It loses its sting. It is natural to freak out about pain – the whole point of feeling pain is to make you freak out and address the problem. But it is those feelings, the feelings that come along with pain, that make pain seem unbearable. Without those feelings, all it is… is pain.

Levels of Experience

There are levels to the mindful experience of pain.

    Bear It

One level is experiencing pain in this moment without the associations. If you’re not thinking about anything but this moment, you recognize you can make it through this moment. The following moment, you do the same, and so on, ad infinitum. You start to notice interesting things, like the fact that the pain is not constant. It rises and falls. It may begin to subside. The average feeling lasts 15 to 20 seconds, after all.

Without obsessing over what the pain means, if you’ll be able to manage it in the future, how good you had it in the past, and so on, pain transforms into something far less urgent.

    Love It

There is another level, however, which you may or may not reach. It’s a level you’re more likely to reach when you’re not in pain, that you’ll take into those painful moments. That level is recognizing that existence is profound. Every moment is profound. Being truly present is always a tremendous thing. Even when you’re in pain.

This is known as radical acceptance. You accept whatever it is you’re experiencing, physically and mentally, as is.

Instead of being something to bear, pain becomes a poignant part of life. Without the judgments, it is no better or worse than pleasure. This is impossible to describe and I don’t blame you if you’re skeptical. However, just about everyone has experienced profound sadness that, although painful, they don’t regret feeling. Without it, life would lack depth. Relationships would lack real connection. This experience is possible with all pain.

Being Present

As I mentioned earlier, mindfulness is far easier to learn when you’re not in tremendous pain. Choosing to be present in a mildly uncomfortable moment is the best way to start. It is an incredible tool to treat depression and other mental illnesses, as well as chronic pain.

However, it is also a profound way to approach life. It’s no wonder that mental health professionals and institutions around the world are embracing it as a long-term treatment for those who have known more pain than they can simply forget.

author avatar
Angel Rivera
I am a Bilingual (Spanish) Psychiatrist with a mixture of strong clinical skills including Emergency Psychiatry, Consultation Liaison, Forensic Psychiatry, Telepsychiatry and Geriatric Psychiatry training in treatment of the elderly. I have training in EMR records thus very comfortable in working with computers. I served the difficult to treat patients in challenging environments in outpatient and inpatient settings
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