Meditation & Pain

(It's better than morphine, apparently)

So here’s the scenario: A researcher wires you to some machines and tells you that she’s going to start burning your skin in 45 seconds, and that you can tell her when the pain reaches an 8 out of 10 and she'll stop. What do you do?

Well, if you’re like most of us, alarm sirens start sounding in your head and some mantra to the effect of “Oh no, oh no, holy *favorite curse*, get me out!” And this continues until, indeed, you start getting burned, tell her to stop, and then you are left breathing heavily, sweating, and ready to watch Netflix in the peace of your own home.

Oh yeah, and then she tells you, “Okay, let’s try that again…” And you have another 45 seconds until D-Day hits again. Fun!

Researchers then hooked up some expert meditators to the same test to see how they experience and rate pain. Here’s what they found:

  • Meditators have lower pain sensitivity (their "8 out of 10" is hotter)

  • They experience much less anxiety before the pain

  • They grow more quickly accustomed to the pain after repeated exposure

  • Overall impact is much lower for meditators

Cool study! So what’s going on here?

Cause / Causality

Researchers are careful about what they say, and here they are only saying that meditators experience these differences, but not exactly why. Some think it’s related to breathing, some to being present, and some to opening to pain instead of trying to get away from it.

To quote one of them on the potential "why":

The findings help explain how opening to pain, rather than avoiding it, can reduce the anxiety that can worsen the experience of pain.
“The goal would be to change your relationship to the pain, rather than changing the experience itself,” Lutz says.

I really love that language, "change your relationship to the pain," because it sums up so much of what I do as a therapist.

My Hunch

What I’ll say next isn’t scientifically justified yet, but this is my guess:

Average Joe

I wanted to map what this experiment looks like. So I did what any sensible parent of toddlers would do—raided their crayola markers and colored pencils and drew a graph.

Let’s assume that the graph below represents an Average Joe like me running through this test. I hear about the burning that’s coming, start to ramp up my anxiety, probably breathe heavily and begin sweating, etc. I’m not present to what’s happening in the moment (which is actually just me sitting in a sterile room with a nice researcher lady or something).

ALL of my bandwidth is on the future pain, and so my body starts responding ahead of time, as if it’s already being burned. So I have no space left in my experience to actually know what’s going on around me.

If we look at the total anxiety (all the space below the pink line), it’s huge. Way more space below that line means more pain, anxiety, discomfort, etc. All in all, I’ve suffered maybe enough pain for two or three burns instead of just one.

(Sound familiar, anyone?)

Expert Meditator

Now let’s look at the expert meditator graph:

As you can see, he’s fully present to what’s happening, which—for most of the study—is him just sitting in a nice room with a nice researcher lady. And then the burning starts and he feels it fully, notes when it feels like an 8 our of 10, and then returns to what’s going on.

In this way, he feels the pain very similarly to Average Joe, but doesn’t feel it when it’s not happening. As a result, his net pain (all the colored in stuff) is much smaller. And he can actually take more heat before he thinks it’s an 8 out of 10.

So, it’s overall less unpleasant, and he can handle more discomfort before bailing out.

Life Application

Let’s bring this back into your life: Where could you benefit from experiencing something as less unpleasant? Where would you like to stay engaged longer in something hard before bailing?

Here are a few ideas…

  • Your child throws their breakfast across the room again and you fly off the handle.

  • Your significant other wants to “have a talk” AGAIN and you just know it’s going to be pure misery. The rest of the day is spent half in anticipation of the conversation. Yuck.

  • You have that big work presentation later in the day and can’t think about anything else all morning. When you finally conclude, you’re so spent that you can’t really answer the group’s questions and you end up going home early or bingeing on something afterward.

  • You are training for a big race in a month or two but you can’t seem to hit faster times. Workouts seem like a drag and you find yourself “forcing yourself” because of peer pressure or guilt.

If any of these seem pertinent, one of the (many possible) solutions could be to learn to meditate.

You Can’t Learn By Accident