It’s normal for the mind to wander from thought to thought, from present to past to future. You may think about your drive to and from work, the TV show playing in the background, what you want for dinner, where you might go on you next vacation, why that guy at the park was such a jerk, and on and on. As your brain flits from thought to thought, it picks up on emotions that are linked to each one, and may begin to dwell on unhappy feelings, giving them more importance and more mental space than they deserve. During the course of the day, as your brain revisits events from the past or imagines what might occur in the future, it can become awash in anger, depression, self-pity, craving, and other negative emotions. Fortunately, your brain also taps into the joy, excitement, anticipation, and other positive emotions that are linked to your thoughts and memories.
Although all of this dreaming, anticipating, and remembering is normal, it can become dangerous for people in chronic pain, for their “trauma brains” are geared to dwell on the negative. The negative emotions linked to unhappy thoughts become amplified, and the positive emotions associated with happy thoughts are downplayed. This can be very harmful to people in pain, for invariably they will think about their pain, the doctors who have failed them, their financial struggles, the jobs they
may lose, the friends and family members who don’t believe they’re really hurting, and other negative things that have happened—or have yet to occur. Such thoughts increase anxiety, depression, and other destructive feelings, contributing to hyper-arousal and setting the stage for amplified pain.
One way to calm the brain and free it from negative thoughts is to practice still meditation. (Active meditation will be discussed later.)
To engage in still meditation, wear loose, comfortable clothing and find a comfortable place to sit, whether on a chair or a mat on the floor. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and slowly exhale.
Then focus solely on the present moment. The idea is to give your mind a rest from its daily patterns of thinking, analyzing, remembering, and planning and to minimize the anxiety, anger, depression, and other feelings that contribute to your pain. To do this, you’ll need to focus on something else, something mundane so your mind won’t be too busy but engaged enough to block your regular thinking patterns. Most people focus on their breathing.
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Try this: Concentrate all of your attention on your breath as you slowly inhale, then hold your breath for a count of one, and slowly exhale, and pausing for a count of one after all the air has exited your lungs, before you take the next breath. It may be helpful to count to four as you inhale, hold for one count, then count to six as you exhale and hold one count. (The exhale should be a little longer than the inhale because it acts as a natural relaxant.) Take nice, slow, easy breaths. You may find that as you relax you can increase the number of counts for both the inhale and the exhale. But don’t force it. Just breathe, relax, and focus on your breath. Stray thoughts will certainly come and go. Don’t worry about them Just acknowledge that they are there and return your focus to your breath. That’s all there is to it!
It’s amazing how much a few minutes of still meditation can relax both mind and body, especially when you make it a daily habit. Studies have shown that it decreases pain, calms the stress response, quells inflammation, improves immune function, boosts positive emotions, and raises overall life satisfaction. Begin with a daily meditation that lasts at least a few minutes, with the goal of noticing when your mind begins to wander and gently bringing it back to the present or a positive intention. As you become more comfortable with the process, try to meditate for longer periods, and perhaps add an extra session at another time during the day to help you “unplug” or get through a rough moment.
The aim is to become more like the impala roaming the African savanna. One moment she is peacefully feeding on the grass, the next she’s fleeing for her life from a cheetah, a predator who can chase her down at speeds up to 70 miles per hour, then slash her open with deadly claws. The impala, who risks death at most any moment from cheetahs and lions and other animals, is propelled into the fight-or-flight response over and over again throughout her life. But once the danger is over, she calms down and goes straight back to grazing, keeping an eye out for danger, but not ruminating over what just happened. The impala lives in the moment and easily lets go of the past. To her, whatever happened before is done, and what might happen later isn’t yet a matter of concern.
For animals, fear is a survival tool. We use fear that way, too, but then we often hang on to it; we become trapped by our fear and suffer negative physiological and psychological effects. The first step in controlling unnecessary fear is realizing when it’s present. Listen to your body. Notice how fast your heart is beating; take your pulse. Tune into your breathing and notice its quality, especially when you feel stressed or in a lot of pain. A normal resting pulse is about 80 beats a minute. Normal breathing should be slow and fairly deep; no short and shallow breaths. Then do 10-15 minutes of still meditation and see how your heart rate and breathing change for the better—proof that you can take charge of unnecessary fear and its negative effects on your mind and body.
You can practice still meditation on your own, or with a group. For assistance in developing your own mediation practice, take a look at www.headspace.com, a website with teaching tools plus an app you can download to your smartphone. Many communities now have teachers certified in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, an eight-week program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn to help you learn still meditation with a focus on managing stress, anxiety, and pain. Kabat-Zinn’s book Full Catastrophe Living is a classic and a great resource on the subject of meditation.