How Meditation Transforms the Way You Experience Pain

If you want to feel less pain, meditate more often. According to this new research, it can genuinely erase the emotional reaction to pain. And since it's long been said by coaches and some doctors that most pain is within the mind, here's scientific proof to back that assertion up.

Daniel Goleman: One of the stunning findings that showed up in long-term meditators—and these other scientists were quite skeptical about [it], but Richard Davidson my co-author and his group went ahead and tried it—they had people who had done 1,000 to 10,000 lifetime hours of meditation come in and simply do a retreat for one day in the lab. And they did a measure of the genes for inflammation, and they found that there was a down-regulation of inflammatory genes from one day of meditation. 

What this means is that inflammation, which is a cause, it’s a risk factor for a wide range of diseases, diabetes, arthritis, cancer, cardiovascular disease, you name it, inflammation almost always plays a role in disease. 

And what this says is that intensive retreats in meditation, even for a day, help you lower the level of those genes. We don’t yet know if this is clinically important; that’s another study that needs to be done. 

But we do know that it’s so remarkable that people in genomic science were amazed that a simple mental exercise could have such a profound impact on this array of genes. 

Pretty eye-opening. There was a remarkable finding when it comes to how the Olympic level meditators experience pain. Ordinarily if you bring someone into the lab and you tell them “We’re going to give you a burn in ten seconds, it won’t cause blisters on your skin but you’re going to feel it, it’s going to hurt,” the moment you tell them that the emotional circuitry for feeling pain goes ballistic. It’s as though they’re feeling the pain already. 

And then you get them the touch of the hot test tube—whatever it is, and it stays ballistic, and then for ten seconds more it stays ballistic; they don’t recover emotionally. 

The “Olympic-level” meditators had quite a different response. You tell them “You’re going to feel this pain in ten seconds,” their emotional centers don’t do anything. They’re completely equanimous. 

The pain comes and they feel it, you see it register physiologically, but there’s no emotional reaction, and there’s no emotional reaction afterward, so in other words, they’re totally equanimous, they’re unflappable. 

Even though they experience the pain physiologically they don’t have the emotional reaction. 

And what we find is that calming the emotional reaction is one of the most powerful benefits of meditation. And I’m not talking about the Olympic level, I’m talking about beginners.

There’s a wonderful method called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction; it was developed by a friend of ours John Kabat-Zinn years ago. And it’s for people in hospitals, people in clinics—although anyone could benefit—but one of the strongest findings on this has been that it helps with people who have chronic pain. 

And I’m talking about pain that medication is not going to help you with, there’s nothing medicine knows what to do about this except give you horrible narcotics that are addictive. And here is a very positive alternative, because what happens when you do MBSR if you have chronic pain is: the emotional component changes. You shift your relationship to the pain. 

It no longer is “My pain, oh my God I can’t stand it,” instead it’s “Oh, there’s that sensation again.” 

So the physiology of the pain continues, but the emotional component, which is really where the hurt is, disappears or is much reduced because you no longer have that same relationship to the pain that we do ordinarily.

Picture this: you're in a doctor's office, and the doctor tells you that he or she is going to give you an injection. By the time they bring the needle out, you've already felt half the pain you're going to feel just by mentally preparing yourself for, arguably, worse pain than you're ever going to get with just that needle. That's because much of pain itself is psychological—and an effective way to mitigate this is by simple mediation. Just a one-day "boot camp" of meditation can make a difference, says Daniel Goleman. His new book is Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.

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