Mindfulness meditation reduces pain by separating it from the self, where neural circuitry supports mindfulness-induced pain relief
Mindfulness meditation can reduce pain, as recently found by neuroscientists from the University of California San Diego School of Medicine who have tested this theory.
Measuring the effects of mindfulness on pain perception and brain activity, mindfulness meditation interrupted the communication between brain areas involved in pain sensation and those that produce the sense of self.
According to tests, pain signals still move from the body to the brain, but the individual does not feel as much ownership over those pain sensations, so their pain and suffering are reduced.
By relinquishing the self-referential appraisal of pain, mindfulness meditation could provide a new method for pain treatment – as this meditation is also free and can be practised anywhere.
Senior author Fadel Zeidan, PhD, associate professor of anesthesiology at UC San Diego School of Medicine, said: “We feel like we are on the verge of discovering a novel non-opioid-based pain mechanism in which the default mode network plays a critical role in producing analgesia.
“We are excited to continue exploring the neurobiology of mindfulness and its clinical potential across various disorders.”
Reduced suffering from increased mindfulness
Zeidan said: “One of the central tenets of mindfulness is the principle that you are not your experiences.
“You train yourself to experience thoughts and sensations without attaching your ego or sense of self to them, and we’re now finally seeing how this plays out in the brain during the experience of acute pain.”
40 participants had their brains scanned while painful heat was applied to their legs – after this, they experienced a series of these heat stimuli and had to rate their average pain levels during the experiment.
Participants were then split into two groups – members of the mindfulness group completed four separate 20-minute mindfulness training sessions. Members of the control group spent their four sessions listening to an audiobook.
Participants in the mindfulness group were instructed to focus on their breath and reduce self-referential processing by first acknowledging their thoughts, sensations and emotions but then letting them go without judging or reacting to them.
On the final day of the study, both groups had their brain activity measured again, but participants in the mindfulness group were now instructed to meditate during the painful heat, while the control group rested with their eyes closed.
“We were really excited to confirm that you don’t have to be an expert meditator to experience these analgesic effects”
Those who were actively meditating reported a 32% reduction in pain
Researchers found that participants who were actively meditating reported a 32% reduction in pain intensity and a 33% reduction in pain unpleasantness.
Additionally analysing participants’ brain activity during the task, researchers also found that mindfulness-induced pain relief was associated with reduced synchronization between the thalamus (a brain area that relays incoming sensory information to the rest of the brain) and parts of the default mode network (a collection of brain areas most active while a person is mind-wandering or processing their thoughts and feelings as opposed to the outside world).
One of these default mode regions is the precuneus, a brain area involved in fundamental features of self-awareness, and one of the first regions to go offline when a person loses consciousness.
Another is the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which includes several subregions that work together to process how you relate to or place value on your experiences.
Zeidan added: “We were really excited to confirm that you don’t have to be an expert meditator to experience these analgesic effects. This is a really important finding for the millions of people looking for a fast-acting and non-pharmacological treatment for pain.”
“For many people struggling with chronic pain, what often affects their quality of life most is not the pain itself, but the mental suffering and frustration that comes along with it. Their pain becomes a part of who they are as individuals — something they can’t escape — and this exacerbates their suffering.”