Mindfulness or meditation techniques have been found to be very beneficial for stress and chronic pain.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a way to step out of our autopilot way of life, and instead take time to pay attention to the present moment-to-moment experience. There are many ways of achieving this, from merely staying present during a walk in the park or by sitting down to do a focused meditation. In doing this our nervous system is given the chance to regulate, and since our nervous system is involved in every part of our body’s function (including pain!) it can be a very powerful system to gain some control over.
As mentioned, this practice has a direct effect on your nervous system and in particular helps to balance our autonomic nervous system. Our autonomic nervous system can be likened to a seesaw, regularly shifting between the more active and stressed sympathetic side, also know as our “fight or flight” response and then towards the rest and repair parasympathetic side, where our body rejuvenates. Unfortunately when our body has experienced an extended period of trauma, stress or pain we can get stuck in the “protective” sympathetic stress state, not being able to self-regulate. This constant state of stress can be so familiar and considered “normal” that we are even unaware that our body is in this mode. This makes it very hard for our body to recover from injury, pain or grief and so needs help to regulate and “tilt” back to the other side of the seesaw where our nervous system gets a chance to rest, repair and recover and therefore so does our whole body.
What the research says:
There has been extensive research undertaken on the positive impact that mindfulness and meditation have on well-being.
Mindfulness and meditation have been found to improve stress reactivity, sleep, mood and resilience and reduce anxiety and depression. It has been found that meditation dampens down the emotional hub of the brain called the ‘limbic system’ and instead activates the ‘prefrontal cortex’ , which is the area of the brain known for ‘executive functioning’ (ie. decision making, working memory, perspective taking, impulse control).
This in turn has an effect on the emotional resilience a person has in the face of stress and adversity.
It has also been found that meditation is linked to activation of a cranial nerve called the ‘vagus nerve’. This is important, as the vagus nerve has parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs and digestive tract. Parasympathetic control means it controls the ‘rest and recovery’ of these three important body systems. Having high vagus nerve activity is said to lead to greater calm, resilience and recovery from stress more rapidly, greater social engagement and positive emotions.
Interestingly bringing awareness to your breathing and allowing it to slow down on its own (much like in meditation) increases the vagus nerve activity!
Mindfulness- Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) Programs:
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Programs are group programs run by a mindfulness teacher over an 8week period. MBCT programs have for many years been successfully used for treating people with chronic pain, depression, anxiety and stress. There is also a lot of research evidence to support these very specific programs.
The research has found improvements post mindfulness program in people’s pain levels, body image and reduction in pain medication. Additionally it was also shown to reduce anxiety, relapses of depression, improved immunity responses, reduced feelings of loneliness, decreased blood pressure and also lowered measures of stress hormones. Even more significant is that actual brain matter changes have been consistently found! Meaning the areas of the brain associated with emotion regulation and perspective taking were actually found to be thickened and alternatively the areas of the brain associated with fear, anger and stress reactivity were found to be thinner.
Where can I join an MBCT program?
Our own Valley View physio Emma Kupke is now a mindfulness teacher and is running the MBCT programs! Her next program starts in September. For more information visit her website at http://www.mindfulrehabphysiotherapy.com
Author Emma Kupke