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Thinking away pain: How mindfulness can give you a spotless mind

Eternal sunshine, without all the trauma.

By Cassidy Ward
Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (now streaming on Peacock!) beautifully illustrates the lengths to which people will go to save themselves from pain. Similar — though less fantastical — efforts are made by real-world people hoping to dull their aches, both physical and emotional.

Generally speaking, our methods of pain reduction tend to be chemical. According to the CDC, roughly one in five adults in the United States endures chronic pain and a significant portion of them rely on opioids for pain management.

Scientists are continually on the lookout for alternative methods of dealing with pain and they’ve come up with some fairly out of the box solutions. Recent research has looked as far afield as absorbable coils for cooling nerves, music therapy, and cone snail venom in the search for the next big thing in pain science. It turns out, however, that the secret to modulating our pain might have been inside of us all along.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Healthy Minds recently investigated the efficacy of mindfulness as a strategy for reducing pain. Their findings were published in The American Journal of Psychiatry.

Their study, which was the first to demonstrate pain management through mindfulness in a clinical setting, sought to identify brain pathways related to pain and determine whether or not practicing mindfulness could alter those pathways and reduce the brain’s pain response.

While mindfulness practices like meditation are often looked upon with skepticism, there has been considerable anecdotal evidence that it is effective at reframing a person’s perspective and might even physically rewire processes in the brain. To find out, researchers performed functional neuroimaging while also applying heat-based stimuli to the participants’ forearms.

The study group of 115 individuals was broken up into groups which included a control group, long-term meditators, and 28 participants who underwent a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program. Pain response was then measured both by self-reporting from the participants and by analyzing the brain scans.

Researchers found that those individuals who completed the eight-week MBSR program reported significantly reduced levels of pain. That conclusion was supported not only by their self-reported pain levels but also by activity in the brain. They hypothesize that mindfulness practice changes the way sensory signals from the brain are translated and sent to the brain.

In essence, they believe that mindfulness helped participants to reframe the pain they were experiencing and respond to it differently. The modulated emotional response then translated to a measurable reduction in pain patterns.

Interestingly, things got a little less clear when looking at the pain response of long-term meditators. Researchers found that people who underwent cumulative practice during an intensive meditation retreat had significantly reduced responses to pain, while people who practiced a little bit every day did not. It seems apparent then, that the change in brain activity associated with mindfulness is complex and dependent on specific contexts.

Untangling the relationship between bodily pain and its interpretation in the brain is unlikely to be something we’ll achieve through a single study, but researchers believe their work might provide a foundation upon which we can probe more deeply.

We might be able to reduce or eliminate the need for some pharmaceutical pain management through targeted mindfulness and, hopefully, we won’t have to erase our minds to do it. Worst case scenario, there’s always Montauk.