What is Mindfulness?
We’ve been hearing a lot recently about the benefits of mindfulness. One source associates mindfulness with improvements in depression and stress, and another suggests that mindfulness can help people manage their chronic pain. While we are particularly interested in exploring the connections between pain management and mindfulness, we wanted, first, to understand mindfulness as a concept. Dr. Daniel Mitchell, PhD, (pictured) is a Licensed Psychologist who works at Central Vermont Medical Center’s Integrative Family Health Practice in Montpelier. He is also a mindfulness expert.
Dr. Mitchell referred us to Jon Kabat-Zinn, Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, who defines mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. It is about knowing what is on your mind.” Dr. Mitchell says there are three basic tenets to mindfulness:
- Acceptance Being with your feelings and resisting the temptation to change how your mind or your body feel is key.
- Be in the Present Moment Learning to observe the here and now as opposed to focusing on the past or future. Stress mostly exists when you feel regret or wish for the past, or when you anticipate that something is going to get worse in the future, says Dr. Mitchell. “Stress has a harder time existing in the present moment.”
- Observe the Present State without Judgment Remove your judgment. Often, we get ourselves into trouble when we interpret our physical and emotional sensations. “This can actually create more suffering,” says Dr. Mitchell. “For example, when you say ‘My back is killing me’ you are making a judgment. There is despair and hopelessness in saying that something is killing you. When you remove judgment, it is easier to cope and to live your life.”
Now, to the connection between mindfulness and pain management. Dr. Mitchell says that mindfulness can help people learn to get out of the habit of judging their thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. “Mindfulness can help people live with their pain instead of experiencing the frustration of trying to get rid of their pain. Going back to one of the three basic tenets of mindfulness, when you remove the judgment, you open up a pathway for yourself to cope with the pain and to be with the pain. This can be especially valuable if your pain is chronic. Training your mind to let the pain exist and learning to live your life anyway is critically important to maintaining your quality of life.”
Often, Dr. Mitchell adds, when trying to control or push away pain, people cause more problems for themselves. For example, people with back pain often, instinctively, brace their bodies or tense their muscles, which can cause more damage and perpetuate the feeling of pain.
This is the first blog in our series about pain awareness and management, in honor of Pain Awareness Month this September. The second blog in this series offers step-by-step instructions for easy mindfulness exercises, also from Dr. Mitchell. The third is an introduction to Restorative Yoga for pain management.