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A Message from the Coordinator
The Mind-Body Connection Influence on Pain
December 2011
I ended my last Coordinator message with a quote from Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, author of “Full Catastrophe Living.” He noted, “Being told that you have to live with pain should not be the end of the road—it should be the beginning. Kabat-Zinn believes that individuals can use “mindfulness” in a way that will help “in giving your life back to you and your body, too, in ways that may allow you to befriend your body in spite of its limitations and to appreciate your body in its fullness and learn to live inside it once again.”
I would like to elaborate on this concept and to recommend a book for individuals who want to explore this mind-body connection in addressing pain. Dr. Jackie Gardner-Nix is a Canadian physician and is the author of the book “The Mindfulness Solution to Pain.” Dr. Gardner-Nix bases many practices in her book on work done at the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
In the course that Dr. Gardner-Nix teaches for individuals who suffer from pain, she explains the following. She notes that your body is constantly undergoing chemical reactions within millions of body cells. For example, you can’t move a muscle in your body without a flow of chemical reactions happening in order for that movement to take place. This starts with an extremely fast message from your brain, which was due to chemical reactions started by your very thoughts. She explains that your very thoughts and emotions are (or create) chemical reactions. “So changing your thought changes those chemical reactions, even triggering changes in your immune system, the system you use to fight infections, cancers, and repair your damaged tissues.” Therefore we understand that one influences the other and we call it the “mind-body connection.”
Dr. Gardner-Nix explains that emotions probably affect irritated nerves and inflammation where physical damage has occurred and so it makes sense that “emotional stability contributes to a more manageable pain perception.” She further explains that it makes sense that the mind while under chronic stress, and often sleep deprived, probably permits constant pain messages to persist and may contribute to poor healing. And while she makes it clear that people living with chronic pain are not responsible for having a chronic pain condition or for having an inability to heal, she offers the following hope. If individuals can make “mindful” changes in the way that they react to stress, they can change the pain experience even when there is physical injury creating the original pain.
Mindfulness might be described as a technique of purposeful attention to what is being experienced, without reaction to or judging that experience. Dr. Gardner-Nix notes that individuals develop habits and attitudes for coping that are related to both genetics and to the experiences to which they are exposed in childhood. If an individual’s childhood is filled with chronic stress and they are never taught how to cope by teaching and example, that individual is more likely “to develop a stress system that goes on high alert easily and frequently.” Many chronic pain sufferers are highly sensitive people and this may be due to their genetic tendency.
Dr. Gardner-Nix tries to teach individuals to become more aware of the “roots” of their emotions, to understand the “mind-body connection” and to develop mindfulness in a way that allows them to “pay attention to what is happening in the present moment, non-judgmentally; right in the here and now.” She wants them to be able to be aware of “any sensation, thought or emotion, as it is, without adornment or coloration, and especially without judging it as good or bad, desirable or undesirable.” She believes that individuals can practice mindfulness to help eliminate destructive coping habits.
Dr. Gardner-Nix gives the following concrete example of a patient’s use of mindfulness. She describes how patient Elena had back pain that had been stabilized on strong opioid medications, but that Elena suddenly had an increase in back pain that she could not connect with any physical changes or activities. Elena began to worry that something was wrong so that her medications weren’t working as they had been in the past; she even began to fret that the medications were no longer going to provide help with her pain. When Elena used mindfulness to examine her situation, she came to realize that her husband had reverted to an old drinking habit. This had increased her anxiety about his drinking problems; the anxiety, in turn, had aggravated her back pain. With this new insight, Elena addressed her concerns with her husband, and her pain returned to its previous control.
In addition to teaching individuals to not bring past judgments into their current thinking—past hurts and disappointments can make you tense up and increase your pain—Dr. Gardner Nix reminds individuals about developing the important attributes of trust and patience. She notes that, though it may be difficult, “people train new brain pathways every time they learn something new; and it becomes easier with practice. You can do this too in the practice of mindfulness.” She stresses that patience with oneself is important and “especially be gentle with yourself if you are starting to increase your exercise or move beyond your usual routines, as you mindfully look beyond what you set as your restrictions a long time ago.”
Research on using mindfulness in dealing with chronic pain is gaining acceptance as a useful tool and proven technique. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine—part of the National Institutes of Health—has sponsored several research projects on mindfulness meditation. It has been studied at major teaching hospitals, including a study conducted at Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals in the Philadelphia region. This study was reported in the journal “General Hospital Psychiatry.” The study demonstrated that using mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques, patients reduced their chronic pain, anxiety and depression and reported an increase in their overall sense of well being.
Dr. Gardner-Nix ends her book with a quote from the book “Grief: The Silenced Emotion” by Joseph Campbell: “We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one waiting for us.”
Kind Regards,
Kathy Kirk, RN