Sunday, January 24, 2021

Easing Physical or Emotional Pain…Mindfully

In our society, we have almost become “programmed” to view pain as a bad thing.  Actually, physical pain serves a very helpful purpose as a messenger.  If we didn’t feel it, just think of the damage that could be done from, say, a hot stove or a broken bone!  As well, we also tend to equate pain (physical or emotional) with suffering, which can certainly be the case (especially with acute pain).  However, the distinction is this:  to suffer involves emotional and thought processes in reference to our painful experiences.  The degree of suffering we feel is not always equal to the perceived level of pain we feel.  In other words, one may “suffer” from minor pains, where another person may view a severe pain as a temporary, minor inconvenience, with very little suffering involved.

The Yoga Sutras teach us that suffering is part of each individual’s existence.  As well, we should expect to feel pain (physical and emotional) periodically.  Pain is natural, and cannot be avoided.  However, the extent to which we suffer as a result of the pain is completely within our own control.  Do we attach to the pain, or can we, as Jon Kabat-Zinn (one of the pioneers of mindfulness) teaches, merely drop in on it occasionally, much as we would drop in to visit a friend?


Kabat-Zinn suggests that we view pain as an opportunity for mindfulness…that the “explosion of sensations” occurs within a brief moment.  Within that span of time, we can remain aware of sensations and their ebb and flow. For example, physical feelings may shift from burning and stinging to a duller throbbing, and anger may shift to sadness. Thus, we create a frame of reference from which the experience of pain unfolds.  In essence, we are observing the pain as a witness—detached yet observant and aware. What is important is the understanding that “I am not my pain”.  This attitude helps to create feelings of control, from which the pain is more effectively managed.

A simple technique that I have found to increase mindfulness and accept whatever pain is present is by doing a mind/body scan: simply be comfortably seated or lie down, and slowly bring awareness to your mind, and each part of your entire body, with the mindset of “I am not my pain”. Whatever pain may arise, view it as a teacher… what is it trying to tell you?  How can you get to know it, understand it, and learn from it?  Rather than repress the pain (or beginning to think negative thoughts), observe the pain without judgment, with an attitude of acceptance, and breathe with it in the moment that it is present…and the next, and the next, as long as it remains.

As with anything worthwhile, this practice takes time and hard work. In terms of pain, mindfulness WILL have benefit…the pain won’t go away, or even be diminished necessarily, but it can serve to teach wonderful things about oneself!



Debra Hennesy is the founder and owner of Feel Your Best, LLC, an organization that trains people to become instructors of yoga, Pilates, stress management, as well as yoga therapists.  Colorado is the location of her newest adventures, along with her husband and active 7-year-old son.



2 Responses to “Easing Physical or Emotional Pain…Mindfully”
  1. Nice article Debra. The exercise I follow is to shift the focus completely away from pain, whether it’s physical or otherwise. It took a while to be successfully able to do that, but now I am easily able to take my mind off it to something pleasant. I have read some other articles you’ve written. I really like the way you write.

    • Debra Hennesy says:

      Thank you Debora, I sure appreciate that! One of my “specialty” areas is PNI (psychoneuroimmunology), and more specifically, pain management…wondered if this would fare well on this website! 🙂 I agree, shifting focus away from pain can be beneficial too (there have been some amazing studies at Mayo on the benefit of distraction for pain management, in terms of physical pain). Everybody is different in what works for them! Thanks again!

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