Meditating Away Pain
A daily meditation practice is pretty enviable—and a recurring New Year’s Resolution over here at goop. But sitting down and doing it is another deal entirely. Frequent goop contributor Vicky Vlachonis makes an even more compelling case for it below.
Many people spend a lot of their time focused on the physical aspects of pain and remedies to change it. What foods can I eat, what creams can I use, what pills can I take? But the best tool to fight pain may be right between your ears.
As I shared in my book, The Body Doesn’t Lie, meditation is a miracle that makes it possible for you to control your body and your health with your mind. A meta-analysis of 47 studies and over 3,500 subjects released in the Journal of the American Medical Association released in January showed that meditation has been definitively proven to decrease anxiety, depression, and pain. (1) Previous research has also found that meditation reduces stress hormones and blood pressure while it simultaneously increases focus, concentration, memory, contentment, immunity, blood sugar control, and even the size of your brain. (2) These effects can enhance every aspect of your life, as well as help with all pain, no matter where, how often, or how intensely you feel it.
Meditation soothes acute pain.
A University of Massachusetts team studied 27 people who experienced two to 10 migraines per month both before and after a 20-minute meditation training session. None of the participants had ever meditated before, but after this singular session, the participants reported a 33% decrease in pain and a 43% decrease in emotional tension.(3) Brain scans have shown that meditation decreases activity in the area of the brain that process pain, the primary somatosensory cortex, while increasing activity in the areas related to pain and emotional regulation. In other words, not only does meditation literally make pain hurt less, it also helps you react less strongly to the pain, both emotionally and physically.(4)
Meditation soothes chronic pain.
One Wake Forest University study found that meditation can have a stronger effect on pain than morphine. Most pain-relieving drugs reduce pain by about 25 percent. This study found that meditation reduced pain intensity by 40 percent and pain unpleasantness by 57 percent after just four sessions of meditation training.(5) After this brief training in “focused attention,” a form of mindfulness meditation in which people attend to the breath and let go of distracting thoughts and emotions, every participant’s pain ratings were reduced, with decreases ranging from 11 to 93 percent.
I’ve seen this at work in my practice every single day. Patients report that when they use meditation to manage their pain, they feel relaxed and almost “hypnotized”—their chronic pain, whether from arthritis, back pain, or irritable bowel syndrome, simply goes away, if only just temporarily.
Meditation soothes emotional pain.
If you’ve read my book, you know all physical pain has an emotional component—but we often try to ignore it. I once had a client with extremely painful stomach ulcers. He did everything to change his diet, but nothing worked until he started meditating to help him with his emotions. Other clients have used meditation to manage their panic attacks. I teach them to check in with themselves every day, so they’ll start to realize, “I haven’t meditated today and now I’m panicky.” Their negative self-talk, especially obsessive rumination or “catastrophizing,” can trigger reactions in their neuromuscular, cardiovascular, immune, and neuroendocrine systems. Negative self-talk heightens the activity in the amygdala, the center of fear in the brain, and has been proven to heighten systemic inflammation. Meditation can help us quiet those thoughts, examine them, and remove their emotional charge, so we don’t have to react to them—we can learn to simply watch them dry up and fly away.
Meditation soothes relational pain.
Meditation can be a refuge from a tense moment, especially when you’re cooped up inside during the winter months. Over the holidays (despite my advice to the contrary!) I was with family and friends every second—I had to do my meditation standing up in the shower! All it takes is a few moments to feel mindful and present.
Meditation helps us in relationships by reducing that same reactivity that causes pain sensations. By increasing our awareness, and helping us manage our anger or frustration with others, we protect our relationships and avoid the increased inflammation that can come from stressful conflicts.
Meditation soothes spiritual pain.
Sometimes our pain stems from feeling disconnected—from ourselves, each other, or even something larger than ourselves. One particular Buddhist meditation, a metta bhavana, or “loving-kindness meditation,” can help improve our compassion and connection to each other, as well as relieving pain.
The loving-kindness meditation starts by focusing on yourself by saying something like this:
May I be happy.
May I be well.
May I be safe and protected.
May I be free from physical and mental suffering.
May I be healthy and strong.
May I be at peace.
Once you’ve repeated these lines a few times and you’re feeling warm and safe, you’ll think of someone you love, such as your child, and you’ll repeat those lines:
May he be happy.
May he be well.
May he be safe and protected.
May he be free from physical and mental suffering.
May he be healthy and strong.
May he be at peace.
Next, you would picture friends, relatives, your pets, anyone you love or care for, all in succession. Then, when you’re feeling ready, you will picture a person with whom you are struggling—perhaps your boss, or your sister, or your spouse. Even if strong feelings of anger start to surface, you just notice them, release them, and continue.
Each layer of this meditation builds on the previous one, and results in you feeling connected, compassionate—and, science shows, pain-free. One Duke University study followed 43 study participants with lower back pain for 8 weeks and found that those who did a loving-kindness meditation demonstrated significant improvements in pain and psychological distress. Analysis of daily data showed that doing more loving-kindness practice on a given day was related to lower pain that day and lower anger the next day.(6)
This practice may even help you live longer. One Harvard study found that the loving-kindness meditation lengthened the length of the caps on our genes, aka our telomeres, which is a biomarker associated with longevity.(7)
Meditation may even soothe global pain. I know this might sound “out there,” but I do believe that our thoughts manifest as energy into the universe. If every single person on earth did the loving-kindness meditation for one minute a day, we could not only feel less pain, we might even shift the course of human history.PS: Still skeptical? Here’s a great (and funny!) story on meditation from NPR.
1. Goyal M, Singh S, Sibinga EM, Gould NF, Rowland-Seymour A, Sharma R, Berger Z, Sleicher D, Maron DD, Shihab HM, Ranasinghe PD, Linn S, Saha S, Bass EB, Haythornthwaite JA. Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2014 Mar;174(3):357-68.
2. Mayo Clinic Staff, “Meditation: A simple, Fast Way to Reduce Stress.”; P. Malinowski, “Neural Mechanisms of Attentional Control in Mindfulness Meditation,” Frontiers of Neuroscience 4, no. 7 (Feb. 2013): 8, doi:10.3389/fnins.2013.00008. eCollection 2013. PubMed PMID: 23382709; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3563089; S. Chaiopanont, “Hypoglycemic Effect of Sitting Breathing Meditation Exercise on Type 2 Diabetes at Wat Khae Nok Primary Health Center in Nonthaburi Province,” Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand 91, no. 1 (Jan. 2008): 93–98. PubMed PMID: 18386551; D. Martarelli, M. Cocchioni, S. Scuri, and P. Pompei, “Diaphragmatic Breathing Reduces Postprandial Oxidative Stress,” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 17, no. 7 (July 2011): 623–28, doi:10.1089/acm.2010.0666. Epub 2011 Jun 20. PubMed PMID: 21688985.
3. Tonelli ME, Wachholtz AB. Meditation-based treatment yielding immediate relief for meditation-naïve migraineurs. Pain Manag Nurs. 2014 Mar;15(1):36-40.
4. Zeidan, F., Martucci, K. T., Kraft, R. A., Gordon, N. S., McHaffie, J. G., & Coghill, R. C. (2011). Brain Mechanisms Supporting Modulation of Pain by Mindfulness Meditation. The Journal of Neuroscience: the Official Journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 31(14), 5540–5548.
5. Zeidan, F., Martucci, K. T., Kraft, R. A., Gordon, N. S., McHaffie, J. G., & Coghill, R. C. (2011). Brain Mechanisms Supporting Modulation of Pain by Mindfulness Meditation. The Journal of Neuroscience: the Official Journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 31(14), 5540–5548.
6. Carson JW, Keefe FJ, Lynch TR, Carson KM, Goli V, Fras AM, Thorp SR. Loving-kindness meditation for chronic low back pain: results from a pilot trial. J Holist Nurs. 2005 Sep;23(3):287-304.
7. Hoge EA, Chen MM, Orr E, Metcalf CA, Fischer LE, Pollack MH, De Vivo I, Simon NM. Loving-Kindness Meditation practice associated with longer telomeres in women. Brain Behav Immun. 2013 Aug;32:159-63.