Have you ever thought about what pain really is?
The actual feeling of pain comes from nerve endings in our bodies that send signals to the brain alerting it of a trauma. Say you’ve burned yourself. Having the ability to feel the pain of being burned causes your brain to force your body to react (fast!) and remove itself from the situation or source of pain. Pain, then, is just a signal that something is wrong and the situation needs to be corrected.
Taking attention away from pain makes it less intense.
Our ability to feel pain is one of the body’s best defense mechanisms because it teaches us not to do things that harm the body.
But what happens when that pain persists or is unmanageable?
When you’ve injured yourself, you’ll feel pain, but after a time your brain will register the healing process and pain becomes more manageable and easier to ignore.
In certain cases, though, pain is not so easily compartmentalized and managed. Chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia and arthritis can cause persistent pain — or, the continued firing of messages between the nerve endings and the brain.
Meditation can provide the extra discipline needed to manage chronic pain.
Research has found that meditation for pain can actually change the way we feel physical pain. Meditation also helps you improve your mindset so that healing is accelerated. You can use meditation to discipline your brain and body to shut down the pain-causing message relays by using what is called the Gate Control Theory.
What Is The Gate Control Theory?
Definition: The idea that pain signals from nerve endings are blocked by a “gate” in the spinal cord to inhibit pain. These signals are prevented from reaching higher levels in your central nervous system.
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- The spinal cord serves as a courier or “information highway”;
- Messages from the body are sent up the spinal cord to the brain and vice versa;
- When pain signals are being sent to the brain, synapses in the spinal cord either block messages or allow them to pass through based on which are deemed immediately important. The “gate” either opens to let certain messages pass through or closes to keep too many from reaching the brain;
- This is a way to prioritize the incoming information. The brain does not become overloaded with messages from the body all at once and can deal with the body’s immediate needs in better order.
Using Gate Control To Manage Pain
The essence of Gate Control Theory is that if you take your attention away from your pain, the transfer of pain signals from the site of your injury to the brain slows or stops, thus effectively dissipating your perception of that pain.
The opposite is also true: the more attention you give to pain, the more the brain registers the incoming messages as important, and the more the pain will intensify.
This means that if you can have the mental discipline to take your attention away from the pain and turn your attention elsewhere, your perception of pain will decrease. The injury is still there, but it becomes less “immediately important” in the brain.
This serves the purpose of lessening the stress response, meaning the sympathetic nervous system can relax and the parasympathetic nervous system can begin the process of healing.
This philosophy is behind the Lamaze method used in childbirth: by distracting the mother’s attention to specific breathing exercises, her perception of pain decreases and she is better able to focus on pushing.
Meditation serves as a way to focus the mind away from the pain and either focus it on perfect health or simply distract yourself with another topic. Most importantly, meditation shuts down the stress response which intensifies the pain. The stress response includes these common factors that open your central nervous system’s “gate” and intensify pain:
- Negative thoughts
- Memory of pain
- Life situation crises
- Unrelated stress
Meditation helps you cope with these negative pain-intensifying energies.
The brain is most easily distracted when you push your mind in a mentally demanding task. In order to go through all the necessary steps to complete a task, the brain must focus solely on it and will file all other neural signals away to be dealt with later… or not at all.
You’ve probably heard people counsel each other to “stay busy” whenever they’re in emotional turmoil such as after a breakup or other personal crisis. This is the same theory, except instead of blocking emotional pain, it blocks physical pain.
Try this technique to manage pain:
- Put on your headphones and your favorite mediation track that is most mentally stimulating so your mind has something to distract it (the meditation will relax you);
- Get comfortable. If you are meditating to deal with chronic pain or intense pain from an injury, be sure to employ a posture that will not bring on more pain. You will not be able to focus this way. Lying down or sitting in a chair may be the most viable options (don’t feel like you need to be in full Lotus for meditation to be effective);
- Once you’re comfortable focus on your breathing. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Count your breaths if that helps you focus on it; or you can make yourself breathe in rhythm with the meditation track. Focus on the slowing of your heart rate and the relaxing of your muscles;
- Once you’ve reached a tranquil and relaxed state physically you may find that your pain has already eased just by relaxing your body;
- If the pain persists, use any number of mental exercises to distract yourself: for example, counting from 100 to 1 backwards by threes. Not that easy! Or you can try naming all of the people you know — and even mentally send them the same healing energy you’re creating within yourself.
Pain is “in your head” and you can give it as much, or as little, attention as you choose!