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Although experts don’t fully understand the connection yet, studies are starting to show that mind-body approaches such as mindfulness can be effective for managing chronic pain associated with various conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome and fibromyalgia.
Dr Emily Amos, a GP and mindfulness expert, says using mindfulness and meditation for pain relief may help change someone’s relationship with pain.
“Using mindfulness for pain management allows us to step back and increase our scope of awareness in a way that dilutes out the pain,” Emily says.
“The pain might be the same size, but our field of awareness and what we’re able to take in is much larger. So our perception of the pain starts to diminish.” She provides an analogy often used by those who teach mindfulness for chronic pain.
“If you have a teaspoon of salt and put it in a glass of water, it will be a very salty glass of water. That’s what happens when we focus on our pain,” she explains.
“But if you put that same teaspoon of salt into a lake, it barely makes a difference.”
Mindfulness is an ancient practice and has been around for at least 2500 years. It’s a mental and physical technique that helps you to focus your awareness on the present moment.
“It teaches us to observe our feelings, thoughts and what’s happening to us with curiosity rather than feeling fearful or overwhelmed,” Emily adds.
“You can practice informal mindfulness where you’re just bringing your own awareness to anything you’re doing.”
This could include when you’re at work, driving or even washing the dishes. Different types of mindfulness include mindful eating, mindful walking and mindful breathing, which all involve focusing intently on the activity.
Meanwhile, the more formal practice of meditation is where you concentrate your mind on one particular thing, such as your breathing, body movements, feelings or a mantra. Both can be used to help manage pain.
It’s a normal reaction for people to try to distract themselves from pain, Emily says. But that goes against the fundamentals of using mindfulness for pain management.
“The thing about pain, by its nature, is that we often try to avoid it,” Emily says. “But when we try to ignore chronic pain, it tends to actually make us put a laser focus onto the pain, and it can become more intrusive.”
Mindfulness teaches us how to be present with that pain, without the need for distraction, she explains.
“Your body’s response to pain might start to fade as you step back from painful feelings and thoughts, and watch them rather than engage in them.”
As a self-help tool that can be used anywhere at any time, mindfulness and meditation offer people more autonomy and control over their pain management. “Many people with chronic pain try meditation and mindfulness because they want something in their toolkit that doesn’t necessarily rely on pharmaceuticals,” Emily says.
There are many free apps, such as Smiling Mind and Headspace, that can help you learn the basics of mindfulness and meditation. Emily says practising just five minutes once or twice a day over about eight weeks is often enough to gain some benefit.
She notes that people who use mindfulness for pain management should keep practising even when they are feeling well.
“It’s important to keep building these skills so when we hit periods of increased pain, we can draw on them more readily and innately.”
While apps will work for some people, you might decide you need more support to practise mindfulness and meditation or might like to learn it in a group setting. Finding a psychologist or counsellor who specialises in mindfulness, and even asking your GP about it, would be a great approach.
Suffering from joint pain? Check out our article on what causes joint pain and how to avoid it. Have a literal pain in the neck? Take a look at our piece on how to fix a sore neck. Is back pain impacting your day-to-day life? We’ve created a piece on the best ways to reduce or eliminate lower back pain.
Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.
Dr Emily Amos is wearing a lot of hats – she’s a GP, certified lactation consultant, yoga teacher, university tutor and mindfulness teacher. Having been through burnout herself, Emily is passionate about educating people on managing stress and embracing self-care. Another major focus is helping healthcare professionals achieve balance in their personal and professional lives, and she also helps new parents with wellbeing and newborn care. If she hadn’t become a doctor, Emily’s second career choice was a role designing the interiors of cars.