The logic behind practising mindfulness to reduce pain

Mindfulness for pain reduction

Living with long-term pain can seem intolerable. On top of the pain your body is constantly – and loudly – telling you about, your mind can be swamped by fears and uncertainties about the future. What if the pain gets worse? Will I have to live with this pain for the rest of my life? What will it be like living with this pain?

This double layer of physical pain and mental distress can seem overwhelming, but you can take back control of a significant part of what you experience by using mindfulness techniques and practices.

Suffering on two levels – primary and secondary pain

Vidyamala Burch, author of Living well with pain and illness, has a chronic back condition due to spinal injuries and partial paraplegia. In a Huffington Post article, she writes:

When you are experiencing ongoing pain or a long-term illness, suffering occurs on two levels. There’s the actual unpleasant sensations felt in the body – the primary suffering. Then there’s the secondary suffering which is made up of all the thoughts, feelings and memories associated with the pain – based on resistance – which often leads to depression, anxiety and tension.”

You can take control of the secondary suffering – your mental and emotional reactions to the pain – using mindfulness techniques. Interestingly, though, you can also use these techniques to:

  • ‘Turn the volume down’ on your mind’s sensitivity to your pain, and
  • Develop your awareness of your breath and body to help you make sure that tension in your body isn’t adding to your pain.

Your mind’s sensitivity to pain

If you are living with chronic pain, your nervous system becomes highly sensitised to the pain messages it receives from your body. In a sense, your pain is amplified. Using mindfulness techniques, you can learn to turn the volume on this amplifier down. Danny Penman Ph.D, writing on Psychology Today, explains:

In recent years, scientists have begun to work out how the mind’s pain amplifier is controlled…

…the human mind does not simply feel pain, it also processes the information that it contains. It teases apart all of the different sensations to try to find their underlying causes so that you can avoid further pain or damage to the body. In effect, the mind zooms in on your pain for a closer look as it tries to find a solution to your suffering. This ‘zooming-in’ amplifies pain.”

In fact, many pain clinics now prescribe mindfulness meditation to help patients cope with the suffering arising from a wide range of diseases. These include multiple sclerosis, cancer, arthritis, fibromyalgia, celiac disease and chronic fatigue.

Being aware of tension in your body

Your body tenses when you are stressed, irrespective of whether that stress is physical or mental. In addition, you may find yourself holding your breath when you are tense. Both of these reactions to stress will make the pain worse. Danny Penman points out that stress also has a negative impact on your immune system, impairing healing.

To overcome tension in your body, Vidyamala Burch recommends the use of the body scan technique. She uses this mindfulness technique daily herself, along with practices that increase awareness of breathing.


We’ll give the final word here to Danny Penman:

It is possible to learn to step aside from suffering and begin to handle pain very differently indeed. In effect, mindfulness hands back to you the volume control for your pain.”

Find out more…


Free weekly pebble

Sign up for our newsletter and receive a beautiful message on a pebble every week:

  • Plus, you'll get the latest news on mindfulness courses and special offers.

Bring a moment of balance and calm into your everyday life with a weekly mindfulness reminder.