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There it is again, that mindfulness word.
We hear it all the time. But how can we make it work for us? And how does it relate to pain management?
Without an official practice, how can one begin?
When we notice ourselves a bit more, we begin to be more sensitive to any changes from our baseline. Lets us look at our own lives outside of meditation practice.
How does it translate?
It works the same way with meditation. We notice a shift in our focus or sensations in our bodies, and we bring it back.
Being able to bring it back is a natural, inherent ability we all have. What we are bringing it back to is the present. If we are speaking in terms of our bodies, we are reintroducing it to what physical and other somatic therapists like to call the baseline.
How familiar are we with our baselines?
We can go hours, weeks, months, and even years without truly listening or understanding what our bodies are trying to tell us. Before we know it, we have created new patterns, behaviors, new pain, new scar tissue, changes to our fascia network, and joint range of motion.
What is discomfort and unease? Stress is a form of discomfort or unease. Anxiety is form of discomfort or unease. Pain is a form of discomfort or unease.
And it can show up in our bodies in different ways:
>> Grinding teeth
>> Clenched jaw
>> Muscle tension
>> Generalized aches and pains
>> Dizziness or a general feeling of “being out of it”
>> Digestion issues
>> Increase or loss of appetite
>> Problems sleeping
These are some of the ways stress can present itself. Every single one of these presentations overlaps with multiple bodily systems. So, how are we ever going to gain control over these symptoms, let alone the ultimate source of our “discomfort”?
Pain is complex.
It’s mechanical; it has a history. It is dependent on lifestyle, genes, injuries, surgeries, our brain’s interpretation of pain, and the level of inflammation. When our inflammatory markers go up, and for a significant amount of time, we begin to develop chronic inflammatory-related diseases, which include chronic pain.
Mindfulness practice is a direct way of experiencing our senses in real time, and it influences multiple networks in our brain that are responsible for improving attention, focus, and creativity. This place is the window of opportunity we want to be in to see life without pain and discomfort.
In meditation, our only goal is to sit through the allotted time we decided upon in the beginning of the sit.
The next goal is to just focus on continually bringing the attention toward the breath or body or whichever point of attention you settle on. We are becoming an active observer of ourselves, which starts from observing posture, breath, and of course, thoughts.
The last goal is to approach these things equally and without judgement. They are all a part of the experience when you sit to meditate.
From a physiological standpoint, the brain areas that get stimulated and inhibited with meditation are the same ones that change our autonomic nervous systems and our interpretation of threat.
Pain is a threat, much like the tack you step on or the presence of a robber in your home. So, by way of mindfulness practice, we are directly influencing our response to a threat: face it, run away from it, or see it with a different lens.
The best part is that we are actually rewiring our brains in that process through, once again, neuroplasticity.
What’s also real in meditation is that it is experiential and requires practice. We may feel that we are not doing enough or don’t have enough time to sit and start. The truth is, it has nothing to do with the time but with intention. This is what makes meditation the hardest yet simplest practice we can incorporate in our daily routine, which doesn’t only involve sitting gracefully on a meditation cushion.
1. Somatic Practices.
Somatic practices are an extension of mindfulness and act as a bridge to deeper understanding and connection. They work by offering us a portal between our internal and external experiences. They bring physical movement in direct relationship with awareness so that we can learn to get closer to ourselves and the world around us. They are a way to lean into our sensations, even though they may be unpleasant, painful, and messy.
Pain is a subjective experience and is oftentimes difficult to describe. From a physiological standpoint, our awareness depends on various systems that respond to signals in our internal organs, tissues, joint, and many other sense systems.
Somatic practices make way for the felt sense and physical articulation. Similar to mindfulness, it’s a way to pay attention to internal sensations in relation to other experiences, whether it be our thoughts, outside noise, or pain.
Somatic practice takes us away from the dissociation that we do with ourselves. Dissociation is a normal response to pain and trauma. Pain and trauma have similar effects; they both overwhelm your nervous system. The opposite of dislocation is embodiment, and somatic practices can get us there.
Embodiment practices influence our internal and external world. Knowing where our body is in space and how we feel within our bodies, whether we are still or in movement, is the key to injury prevention, reducing the threat and signals to our chronic pain and improving our experience.
Pioneers in somatic practices, like Peter Levine, Phd, offer various exercises for embodiment and self regulation.
Play—in the non-traditional sense—is creating the space and room for error without self-judgement. Remember your time as a child when you felt free to be yourself. Where were you? Imagine the details. Can you replicate that experience? It’s not escaping but more of existing in a place of aliveness that still feels safe and where there is no right or wrong.
How about replicating an adult version of play. Anything that can bring you closer to your body can be a form of play because it’s an act of practicing presence, letting go, and just being with an experience.
Some simple and minimally physically demanding examples of play include: blowing bubbles, flying a kite, singing in the shower, speak to your plants and pets, and so on. We might think of these things as having an impact, but these are some ways we can directly practice being present in moments that are safe.
Isn’t that a relief?
Nothing works in isolation. Your body, mind, outlook, personal history, and everything in-between creates your personalized canvas and landscape.
Understanding the physiology, your body, and internal workings of your mind is the first step to disentanglement.
The analogy I use is approaching your pain like you’re approaching a soft ball of yarn. At first glance, you might not notice the beginning, middle, or end, but you can see the intricate nature of each yarn thread and how one can influence the other to create the ball you see.
Oftentimes, it takes a gentle approach to begin.
Begin slowly, softly, and with open awareness to possibilities.