By Rebecca Maidansky, PT, DPT at Sullivan Physical Therapy
Pain is something we all experience throughout our lifetime. Most of us will stub a toe or twist an ankle and consequently give our bodies a chance to rest and return to regular life. Chronic pain, however, is defined as fluctuating or consistent pain lasting more than three months, decreasing tolerance to physical activity and negatively affecting overall quality of life. The emotional and financial toll on those affected by chronic pain is tremendous. It can affect one’s ability to work, to pursue or participate in romantic relationships, and even limit independence in completing simple, daily tasks like grocery shopping or showering.
While pain can be managed pharmacologically or therapeutically, meditation and mindful based therapy has empirically proven to be effective in improving physical and social function as well as decreasing pain in those suffering from conditions like cancer, multiple sclerosis, peripheral neuropathies, interstitial cystitis and even persistent unknown sources. Research on mindfulness based stress reduction heavily supports this claim. One study, in particular, focused on those affected by peripheral neuropathy and multiple sclerosis. The treatment using mindfulness therapy techniques involved 90-minute meditation classes each week, demonstrating impressive results after 8 weeks; upon completion, participants reported decreased pain, improvements in physical and mental health, and improved tolerance to physical activity.
Meditation and mindfulness based therapy has even been shown to increase antibodies to influenza and lower stress-related hormones in the blood. Additional benefits include decreased levels of anxiety and depression, stress reduction, improved feelings of well-being and ability to focus.
When people come to physical therapy, they are often in pain and seeking relief. Pain may be affecting their quality of life and ability to participate in activities they used to participate in. Stress management and how one feels about themselves are significant components of every recovery process. Stress management as an adjunct to physical therapy affects the speed and success of their rehabilitation. Stressors affect how we feel pain, making it more difficult to complete exercises and even make it to physical therapy appointments. That’s where one of the most significant benefits to meditation as a mindfulness based therapy technique lies: it can be done in any position, in any location, with any disability, for any amount of time.
So, how does one begin meditating? If you have tried it, you know how hard it can be. Just like with any form of exercise, getting started with mindfulness based therapy is difficult. While there are many forms of meditation, most forms involve focusing our attention to control our thoughts and become fully present in regards to where we are in that particular moment. This is called mindfulness.
While reading and learning about meditation will help you develop mindfulness therapy techniques that work for you, a quiet space is all you need to get started. Find your quiet space, sit in a comfortable position, and set a timer for 5, 10, 15 minutes. In my experience from the first time I tried meditating as a mindfulness based stress reduction method, 5 minutes feels like a lifetime. Start easy, and breathe. Focus on how your breath feels leaving the tip of your nose, and then entering it.
If this seems exceedingly challenging, which I know it can be, here are some basic meditation and mindfulness therapy techniques to help you along:
- Count your breath
- Counting your breath is a great option for beginners getting started with mindfulness based therapy. Count one on your breath in, and two on your breath out. This can help quiet your mind and focus your thoughts.
- You can count under your breath or in your mind. If you find that your thoughts have wandered, gently usher yourself back to breathing and counting.
- Visualization is best done by choosing an idyllic scene and allowing your mind to focus in on and embellish the scenery. You can allow yourself to imagine the sounds of the landscape, such as water flowing. You can allow yourself to imagine the scent in the air, such as salt or rain.
- This visualization technique helps keep your focus and can help the mind from wandering. It can help keep your mind engaged in your goal of slowing your thoughts when clearing your mind feels like too daunting a task.
- Body Scan
- From a comfortable position, settle into your posture and bring your attention to your body. When we are in pain, we hold tension in areas we are not consciously aware of.
- Beginning at your toes, feel whether you’re holding any tension in your feet. Pay attention to what your feet feel like and where they are resting. Relax your toes. Move on to your calves, to your legs, to your glutes. One by one, pay attention to how they feel, where they are resting, if you’re holding any tension in those muscles, and if you can gently relax or soften them. Move on to your abdomen, your lower back, your chest, and your shoulders, asking yourself the same questions. Continue all the way down your arms and hands, to your neck, your jaw, and your face. Scan your body and pay mind to each area, asking yourself if you can soften any more than you already have.
- Find a word or phrase that resonates with you. It can be something simple, like “breathe” or something a bit longer like “I am here.” You can also choose from preexisting mantras. Whatever it is, choose something that resonates with you.
- Close your eyes, breathe and repeat it to yourself over and over again in your mind or quietly under your breath.
Remember, you cannot be bad at mindfulness based therapy. Be kind to yourself. Helping your mind is helping your body. Helping your mind will improve your rehabilitation process. Stress management as an adjunct to physical therapy will improve your outcomes and improve your overall quality of life.
If you are interested in relieving your pain through meditation, mindfulness based stress reduction, and physical therapy, you can request an appointment for Sullivan Physical Therapy and hundreds of other quality clinics in your area through the BetterPT website and BetterPT mobile app. Don’t wait to feel better! Book your physical therapy session now.