Why Mindfulness Meditation is (Sometimes) Bullshit for Chronic Pain Sufferers — And What to Try Instead
I lay on the bed. My mind is empty of thoughts, worries, and anxieties. I focus on my breath; on the here, on the now — not on my deadlines. Not on perfection. The here and now.
The breath that pulls my back.
The way each movement reaches for the root of pain, delivering to various points in my form like a poison.
The level of pain in my body.
I am so very aware: my mind void of all else, I am aware that pain is ever-present and inescapable. I defend my mind against thoughts of lack of insurance. This isn’t the time to think of how to escape pain. This is the time to think of my body in the now, and how my body is in pain, and how I must accept it.
Except: it’s unbearable and there isn’t a solution to end pain, unless — no, I can’t allow my mind to go there.
Wasn’t mindful meditation supposed to help me relax? Now I’m just reminded of my unbearable pain level.
What is Mindfulness Meditation?
Mindfulness meditation is a focused component of mindfulness: the practice of concentrating, constructively, on the here and now. For some, it can truly change a relationship with pain in a beneficial way. For others, it’s simply a way doctors can push the responsibility of pain management back on the patient (often female) in the wake of the opioid crisis.
It can help people cope with pain, but it’s not an alternative. Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation can be a piece of a holistic puzzle, but some doctors and other proponents of the practice suggest it’s a cure.
It’s not, and it can hurt some chronic pain sufferers.
Here’s a little bit about mindfulness meditation and how it can help people:
Mindfulness and Chronic Pain
To understand why mindfulness can be a harmful suggestion for some chronic pain sufferers, we need to understand what a chronic pain sufferer goes through.
A day in life of a chronic pain sufferer is not an easy one. Many of us have invisible pain connected to injuries and invisible illnesses, meaning it’s not evident that we’re in pain when we’re having a conversation. I walk, drive, eat, and work while in chronic pain.
I’m one of 25.3 million Americans who reports daily chronic pain. It helps me to express it, but when I do, I’m sometimes met with the following types of responses:
* Have you tried [over the counter drug or vitamin]?
* Change your diet! Eat some kale.
* Focus on the positive.
* Mind over matter. Try mindfulness.
These are not helpful, especially not on their own, and we’re going to look at why mindfulness in particular isn’t a great suggestion for me.
Chronic Pain and Mental Illness
Chronic pain sufferers are well aware of the link between chronic pain and mental illness. Aside from medications and how they can affect you, it comes down to this: feeling worn down every day and sometimes being unable to participate in activities? It sucks. It’s depressing. Instead of pretending like everything is okay (which most people want us to do), it’s important to our health to own up to it and confront the issue through therapy and therapeutic means.
Mindfulness is very much related to this, and until I started speaking with professionals who specialized in chronic pain (as well as other pain patients), I really didn’t find anyone who understands.
Mindfulness means focusing. Being aware of the here and now. Breathe in, breathe out.
What does that mean for a chronic pain patient?
It means an awareness of the weight of the pain; a focus on the very source of difficulty.
During a group breathing exercise in acting class, why are other people in deep focus, while I cry? I’m so good at immersion, I’m able to flip it on like a light switch sometimes. But mindfulness isn’t the way to go, because it makes me very aware of my true self and the pain that my body must carry.
My issues with mindfulness meditation boil down to this:
- Awareness of pain level (beyond when I should medicate) isn’t helpful. It causes distress.
- Some days, it’s mentally or physically achievable. Other days, not so much. Creating more instability when chronic pain is already unpredictable is not helpful.
- An empty mind leaves only the pain surrounding it, and that can lead to negative thought patterns, anxiety, and the types of thought behaviors that mindfulness and related meditation should minimize.
The spirit of mindfulness asks us to think about clarity and routine. So what can we do instead?
Mindfulness Meditation Alternatives for Chronic Pain Sufferers
Chronic pain sufferers need pathways to improvement. If mindfulness meditation doesn’t work, other things might. Here are some things that have helped me:
- Make an achievable routine. It could be as simple as showering every day.
- Forget to-do lists. Make to-done lists.
- Consider CBT — and if that’s not accessible, try WoeBot. I use Maven (for women) to find a therapist experienced in chronic illness issues, and she was understanding when I explained how mindfulness wasn’t helping.
If you aren’t a chronic pain sufferer, but find yourself suggesting various remedies, try supporting these habits instead. Ask the chronic pain sufferer in your life what you can do to support.
For me, the answer is sometimes as simple as “let’s hang out at home” or “please help me move my laundry bag.” This small act of caring can make a huge difference, and it’s quite the opposite of useless advice.
Just listen. Understand that most chronic issues don’t go away — they hang around or get worse. I know it’s hard for you to accept. Imagine how it feels for me to accept — it is my body, after all.
Mindfulness meditation can be helpful, but to some folks dealing with chronic pain, it’s not the best solution. Let’s move away from pushing solutions on to patients and friends — towards a world of holistic treatment and finding something else that works.
Has mindfulness helped or harmed your chronic pain journey? How could friends and family be more tactful when offering help? Let me know what works for you in the comments.