Mindfully Turning Towards Chronic Pain

Ilze GroblerUncategorized

One in five Australians are affected by chronic pain, which in turn increases the risk for depression. Our common reaction is to resist pain, yet mindfully turning towards pain offers the opportunity to transform suffering.


Chronic pain affects one in five Australians and is the most common reason people seek medical help. This prevalence rises to one in three Australians over the age of 65. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, almost a third of adults living with severe or chronic pain experienced high levels of psychological distress and one in five also suffered from depression and other mood disorders.

What is pain?

Pain is the body’s way to tell the brain “Pay attention! There is something wrong.” And, as such, the pain response is immensely helpful and protective. Without this mechanism we couldn’t have survived as a species. It is important, however, to understand the difference between chronic and acute pain. Acute pain are physical sensations that often come on quickly and might be mild or increase sharply to reach the height of our pain tolerance. These symptoms are neither to be tolerated or ignored and as such, our mind will continue to send us critical messages that require action. Acute pain usually doesn’t last longer than six months and it disappears when the underlying cause of pain has been treated or has healed. By contrast, chronic pain is often defined as unpleasant sensations of discomfort that extends beyond the expected period of healing. Unrelieved acute pain might also lead to chronic pain.

How is pain measured?

What makes pain particularly challenging is that there is no generally accepted, accurate device that can measure pain. Also, each person experiences pain differently. Healthcare professionals rely heavily on a person’s ability to describe their pain in detail and may ask you: “How bad is your pain right now on a scale from 0 to 10, with 0 being no pain and 10 being the worst pain you ever had?”

Psychology and pain – is it all in your head?

All experiences of pain is real. Pain is more than just a physical sensation, our emotions drive the experience of pain as well as our thoughts or the story that we tell about our pain. Psychological treatment and mindful awareness is particularly helpful in transforming the way we view being ill or in pain.

The Benefit of Mindfully Turning Towards Pain

Psychiatrist, Neurologist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl wrote: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Pain is an inevitable part of life, however suffering is optional.

Let me explain by using the following equation: Suffering = Pain x Struggle. When we experience pain, our mind will tell us, “Pay attention! There is something wrong”. As humans our most common reaction to pain is to resist it and our self-talk may include thoughts such as “Why me?” “Why now?” “This is unbearable!” “I can’t stand it!” “I feel like I’m going to die!” And in that moment of resisting and struggling with the pain we create our psychological suffering.

Susan Bauer-Wu has dedicated her career to alleviating suffering and promoting well-being. She is the author of the book Leaves Falling Gently: Living Fully with Serious & Life-Limiting Illness through Mindfulness, Compassion & Connectedness. She says: “Our most common reaction to pain is to resist it, so when someone tells you to turn toward your pain it seems counterintuitive, almost like punishing yourself.”

However, Bauer-Wu encourages her clients to tune into their body and investigate it with mindful awareness, curiosity, and compassion. The cornerstone of the mindfulness approach to pain is that you need to learn how to accept where you are, and then you can notice the sensations and respond appropriately. When we turn towards pain in this way, it may still be pain but our response to it is transformed. It changes the equation to: Pain without struggle = Pain.

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