I’ll be honest. I spend my life crazy stressed. I have a job that my husband describes as ‘flexible – you can work any 60 hours a week you like’. And then I have two more jobs – I am Editor in Chief of the Journal of Adolescence and I’m also starting this company.
And have I mentioned I have a son who lives with severe chronic pain? For years just getting him out the door to school could take hours every morning. Painful. Stressful. Hours.
One of the things that gets me through is being mindful.
I know that ‘mindfulness’ can sound airy fairy and self-indulgent. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of mindfulness. Reading in the bathtub is one of my favorite things to do too.
But what the concept of mindfulness actually describes the conscious act of attending to the world around you. For me, it’s been a lifelong search for tiny moments of pleasure, joy, and beauty. The taste of coffee and the warmth of the cup in your hand. Hold onto that! It feels good. In ten seconds you’re going to have to get up and pick up cat puke. Savor that small perfect.
I do it all the time – when I walk home from work in sort of a gray fog with everything I did and didn’t do swaddling my brain. The sun catches a drop of water on the grass and I just . . . look at it. For maybe two seconds.
Mindfulness can be brief.
I’ve written before about a time in my twenties when I was falling into a deep depression. I was out of work. My husband was working his own 60 hours a week and it was hard to find time for each other. I knew no one in the town we’d moved to.
I was back in Boston to visit friends at my old job. I pushed the elevator button and . . . it just opened! I know that seems stupid and trivial but at the time it felt like a miracle. Something had worked the way it was supposed to. And I noticed. Mindfulness is noticing the good, the joy, the beautiful, or just the sensation.
What does this have to do with pain?
A lot – for both people living with pain and caregivers. For me, it kept me going through the worst of times when I felt like a hopeless failure as a mother who could barely keep up with their job.
But it also really helps my son when he is in pain.
One of the many side effects of severe migraines is hypersensitivity (allodynia) – to light, to sound, to touch. There are times when I walk into his room and he’ll cringe just feeling me breathe.
The upside of sensitivity is sensitivity. I’ll bring in a cup of tea and he’ll just stop. Hold the cup in his hand. Put his nose in the mug, feel the steam on his face, and let the smell fill his senses. Then taste – all those complex bitter, sweet flavors.
He brings his whole attention – his whole being – to experiencing the tea. It fills his brain. AND THAT DRIVES OUT PAIN. Not for hours. Not even for minutes. But for seconds. Sometimes long seconds.
And when you’re in pain that stretches on for hours and days and weeks and months, seconds of intense pleasure when there’s no pain are good.
It also, when practiced consistently, can reduce pain. The amygdala is the area of the brain that processes both positive and negative emotions. Emotional state radically affects how we experience pain.
Concrete example: When you’re hiking, burning legs can be experienced as a positive sign that you’re really working – just part of that great hiking experience. When you’re lying in bed, that same sensation can be frightening. That fright intensifies the sensation of pain, because your brain interprets it as danger. And the biological purpose of pain is to prevent you from danger and harm. (Chronic pain is a neurological condition where you experience pain in the absence of danger.)
That’s why when you’re depressed or anxious, everything hurts more.
Mindful focusing on positive sensation communicates to the amygdala that all is well. That reduces the immediate sensation of pain.
By practicing mindfulness, my son has learned to focus on the positive sensations so intensely that it distances him from his pain. He can feel it, but it’s as if it were happening at a distance to someone else. Practicing mindfulness helps to reduce stress, calm the amygdala, and make pain easier to cope with.