Learn to soothe chronic pain with mindfulness meditation
Sometimes it comes on softly, a dull ache that hums deep within your knees, hips, back or ankles. Other times it attacks the joints of your hands in sharp, quick jabs like a hornet or coils around the muscles of your arms and neck like a snake.
However it strikes, pain is a persistent part of daily life for many people living with lupus—more than 90% suffer from joint or muscle pain over the course of their illness. Inflammation is the culprit. Physicians can recommend an arsenal of prescription and over-the-counter medications, from aspirin to antimalarial drugs. But when the pain just won’t leave your body, you can also turn inward.
What is mindfulness meditation?
Mindfulness meditation involves directing your attention to the present moment with an attitude of openness. It means accepting everything just the way it is, even unfavorable aspects of your life that you wish you could change—like chronic pain. For someone with lupus who suffers from persistent joint or muscular pain, the struggle to find relief can be stressful and exhausting. But mindfulness meditation is not about fighting. It’s all about acceptance. And once you have achieved calm, it can help you regain a much-needed sense of control when your disease brings you discomfort.
But how can mindfulness help with lupus?
A 2013 literature review published in the journal Pain Medicine suggests that mindfulness-based interventions decrease the intensity of pain for people dealing with chronic pain. It suggests that practicing a form of mindfulness meditation can at least help you cope with the psychological effects of your pain, and at best it may even reduce the actual intensity of the pain you experience by decreasing your sensitivity to the pain itself. While more research is needed to determine how mindfulness helps people cope with pain, this existing research suggests it can help.
What to know before you start
Maybe you’re busy. You don’t see the point. You hate incense and won’t touch anything made with kale. You must not be the meditation type…or are you? It’s completely normal to feel frustrated when you’re just getting started—meditation is a lot harder than it looks.
Here are some tips to keep in mind as you develop your meditation practice:
- Habits take time. A 2009 study suggests it takes an average of 66 days to form a habit. So while finding time to fit in a daily meditation may feel like extra work now, within two months or so it will become a natural part of your routine.
- Start small. Don’t start off with a meditation marathon. You may want to begin with just 5 minutes a day, lengthening your session to 15 minutes on Saturday or Sunday. You can gradually increase the time as you become comfortable.
- Your mind is a born wanderer. Don’t worry about it. In fact, it shows valuable self-awareness when you recognize that you’ve become distracted. Simply accept that your mind will steer away from the task at hand, and gently guide it back to the present each time it does.
- Make up your own rules. There are countless different ways to meditate. Don’t be afraid to tweak your meditation so it works best for you.
- Relax and accept the challenge. Recognize that meditation is deceptively hard work—you may be sitting still, but you’re doing so in a way that takes hard work and discipline. Just remember that although it may take time to enjoy the benefits, the results will eventually be rewarding.
Now try some basic steps
There are many ways to practice mindfulness meditation, but all you really need is a quiet space and a willingness to embrace the present moment just the way it is. You may find it helpful to get started by listening to a guided meditation. A simple meditation can look like this:
- Sit up straight with your legs crossed and your shoulders and neck relaxed. With perfect posture, you can feel the breath flowing through your body, reminding you of the connection between your mind and body. Another benefit of great posture—the mental focus keeps you from getting bored. Become aware of each part of your body, from your head to your toes, and try to relax every muscle.
- Focus on the sensation of breathing. Count each breath: breathe in, breathe out (1); breathe in, breathe out (2); breathe in, breathe out (3); and so on, until you reach ten. Once you get to ten, start again at one. Keep your awareness on the sensation of your breathing for at least 5 minutes. It sounds so simple, but learning to recognize and gently regulate your breathing is at the heart of any meditation practice—once you can regulate your breathing, you can begin to focus your mind.
- Continue to focus on your breathing, but no longer count your breaths. If your mind wanders, just gently guide it back. Try to maintain longer focus on your breath. Simply allow yourself to feel the natural (and likely irregular) rhythm of your breaths without trying to change anything
- Gradually narrow the focus of your awareness as you breathe. Try to focus on the individual sensations you feel, like the breath passing through the rims of your nostrils as you inhale. Paying attention to these little sensations helps your mind develop a subtle level of perception. This can help you achieve mental and emotional stillness.
- After several minutes of carefully observing your breath, you can begin to shape it. Think of yourself as a sculptor, smoothing each breath’s uneven edges until they flow seamlessly from one to the next at regular intervals. Make these changes gently and without rushing.
Tips for advancing your meditation practice
It is important to practice mindfulness without judgment. Notice and acknowledge what is going on around you, but don’t designate it as “good” or “bad”. Be sure to pay attention to one thing at a time—no multitasking. Focus simply on what the present moment is, rather than what it “should” be.
You can develop visualization exercises, such as imagining thoughts are clouds that roll by almost as soon as they appear. Or you can put your thoughts into imaginary balloons then let go of the string and let them float away. Remember that each time you need to bring back your awareness from wayward thoughts that this is successful meditation and you are improving your level of awareness.
Adding elements to can help improve and deepen your practice. You can try producing sounds such as ‘oooh,’ ‘ah,” or ‘hum' and bringing awareness to your breath to increase your ability to focus. Repeating a mantra or word that is meaningful to you, such as peace or love or another word that feels good for you to say either aloud or silently to yourself, can help to control wandering thoughts. Breathing techniques also can help improve and deepen your practice. We recommend taking classes to help guide you through these exercises.
Regardless of the techniques you use, enjoy and appreciate the tremendous benefits of meditation throughout your life. Want more free resources on meditation? The New York Times has a great wellness guide with information and resources on meditation.