When pain overtakes you, your first response may be to pop a pill. But drugs like opioids and ibuprofen may not be the safest option. Next time pain strikes, consider a safer and more natural approach. Ease pain with your mind.
Few things in life are certain. Unfortunately, pain is a certainty. At some point in your life you will experience pain — whether acute or chronic — it will inevitably cross your path.
Pain can be disabling and debilitating, but it’s a survival mechanism with a purpose to protect the body. While acute pain is intense and short-lived, chronic pain lasts much longer and can be mild to intense. But without pain, you wouldn’t be motivated enough to change that part of the body, which the brain (right or wrong) thinks is damaged.
Pain is a signal sent by the brain to encourage you to act. But pain is not always an accurate measurement of the amount of tissue injured. That means the pain your feeling may not be a reliable sign of what’s really going on. Chronic pain, in particular, may be a blend of different complex factors.
By now, most of us are aware of the pitfalls associated with prescription and non-prescription pain relievers. Acetaminophen decreases pain, but may also cause liver damage if not taken correctly. NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, help decrease pain but can cause stomach bleeding or kidney problems in certain people. Prescription pain medicine such as narcotics or opioids can result in overdose and death, if not taken correctly.
So, short of popping pain relievers, what else can you do to minimize pain naturally? Well, the good news is, to a certain extent, you can learn to ease pain with your mind. The brain can learn how to manage and decrease the sensation of pain using a combination of techniques. But first, you’ll need to learn how to breathe deep and slow.
Breathe away pain
Chronic and acute pain can wreak havoc on day-to-day living. Your relationships, work, social life and sleep all suffer when you’re in pain. While some medications offer relief, you’ll often need more and more to numb the pain — particularly with chronic pain.
Deep breathing may be a better alternative. German experimental research studied the effect of deep and slow breathing on pain perception, autonomic activity and mood processing. Researchers found that breathing definitively influences how pain is processed in the body.
Learning how to ease pain with your mind begins with deep and slow breathing to relax the body. Learning to relax takes practice, especially when you are in pain. But through relaxation, you can release muscle tension and then move on to remove attention away from the pain.
Deep and slow breathing technique
1. Place yourself in a dark room and relax in a reclining position. You can shut your eyes or focus on a point in the room. The key is to feel comfortable.
2. Slow down your breathing. Breathe in deeply through your nose. Use your chest to pull the air into your stomach, while slowly counting to 10. Exhale slowly through your mouth, while pursing your lips, for a count of 10.
3. Continue for two to three minutes of controlled breathing. Once you feel yourself slowing down, you can begin to use imagery techniques.
Your thoughts are going to wander. It may be impossible to think only of your breathing. But that’s okay. Each time you’re distracted, simply return your focus back to your inhalation and exhalation. Your primary goal is to maintain a focus on your own natural breath.
Focusing on your breathing has been used to calm the mind for centuries. The simple act of clearing your mind is proven to have aesthetic qualities. A study in The Journal of Pain shows that deep breathing improves pain, whether acute or chronic.
Focus away from the pain
This technique demonstrates how powerfully the mind can change sensations in the body. Begin by focusing your attention on a part of the body that is pain-free and alter sensation in that part of the body. For example, imagine that your hand is beginning to warm up. This takes the mind away from focusing on the source of your pain.
Distracting the mind is another powerful way to block pain messages. A study published in the journal Current Biology showed that you can trick pain away by focusing or thinking about something else.
German researchers had subjects concentrate on tasks while painful heat was applied to their arms. Using brain scans, researchers found that when participants concentrated on a specific task — instead of the pain — it helped block pain messages from being sent from the spinal cord to the brain. Additionally, a natural production of painkilling opioids was triggered.
This technique uses imagination to reduce pain. Imagine your pain is a colored ball, such as red to signify stress. As you breathe in and then exhale, imagine the “red ball” of pain becoming smaller and smaller. Gradually change the color to a more relaxing hue like green or blue. In the same way, you may choose to imagine a soothing and cooling ice pack or hot pack being placed onto the area of pain. Choose images that are the most relaxing and pain-relieving for you. Relaxing images may differ from person to person.
In the same way, you may choose to imagine a soothing and cooling ice pack or hot pack being placed onto the area of pain. Choose images that are the most relaxing and pain-relieving for you. Relaxing images may differ from person to person.
This particular pain technique involves mentally separating the painful body part from the rest of the body. For example, imagine that your painful lower back is sitting on a chair across the room. Now tell it to stay there, far away from your mind.
Pain can be debilitating. But if you train your mind to frame the pain in a more positive light you will lessen the pain. For example, if you experience acute pain after an injury, tell yourself that your body is working to repair the damage.
“Don’t get too emotionally involved with the pain or get upset when you feel it,” suggests long distance runner and performance psychologist Jim Taylor for Runner’s World. “Detach yourself and simply use it as information,” says Taylor.
Separating pain involves “sensory splitting” or dividing the sensation of pain into separate parts. For instance, if your pain feels hot, only focus on the sensation of the heat and not on the pain.
Cough through quick pain
Even something as simple as the act of coughing can confuse the brain and take the sting out of sudden acute pain. Researchers at Ernst-Moritz-Arndt University in Germany discovered that coughing right when a needle enters your skin can help thwart pain. Researchers studied the pain responses of 20 men as they were pricked with a needle. They concluded that a simple trick of coughing was an easy way to alleviate pain when getting a needle.
Imagine injecting an anesthetic (like Novocain) into a painful area. Follow through with an image of a soothing and cooling ice pack placed onto the area of pain. Alternately, you can even imagine injecting a stronger pain reliever like morphine into the painful area. You can even imagine your brain producing massive amounts of endorphins — the natural pain relieving substance of the body. Allow them to flow to the painful parts of your body.
The bottom line is you can ease pain naturally with your mind. Through breathing, relaxation and focus, you can activate the healing force inside you. Give it a try.
— Katherine Marko