Pain, Pain, Float Away
It's in Your Head
Scientists Weigh In
According to one early study by Jon Kabat-Zinn, director of the
Stress Reduction Clinic, 65% of the patients who spent 10 weeks in his program
reported that their pain was reduced by at least one-third. (The study was
published in the April 1982 issue of General Hospital Psychiatry.) Their
mood improves and they experience significantly fewer overall symptoms, says
Shreyas Patel, MD, a neurologist who trained with Kabat-Zinn before joining the
Marino Center for Progressive Health in Cambridge, Mass. Indeed, an independent
technology assessment panel, convened in 1995 by the National Institutes of
Health, confirmed that behavioral approaches -- including relaxation techniques
and hypnosis -- can be quite effective for chronic pain.
But how might meditation work to relieve pain? First off, the
relaxation that's at the heart of meditation relieves the muscle tension that
most certainly contributes to pain, says Howard Fields, MD, of the University
of California, San Francisco, who sat on the NIH technology assessment panel.
And the anxiety involved in anticipating pain -- or thinking it will never
leave -- causes additional muscle tightening, says Patel. Relieving that
anxiety is another way meditation can help people cope with physical
In addition, meditation most likely alters a person's emotional
response to pain. Remember, pain is more than just a physical sensation -- it
is an experience steeped in emotion. "I'm still in constant pain," says
Benson. "But meditation makes the pain more bearable. It's taught me how to
live with it and to find ways to better manage it."
Altering Emotions and Sensations
This makes sense, physiologically speaking, because the
sensations and the emotions associated with pain are processed by different
parts of the brain, says Catherine Bushnell, PhD, of McGill University. So
relaxation techniques, including meditation and hypnosis, might allow people to
tolerate pain they would ordinarily describe as unbearable. In her studies of
hypnosis, Bushnell has found that people can be taught to reinterpret painful
sensations, regarding them as "warm and pleasant" rather than
"burning and unpleasant."
"So it's not just that people are being trained to ignore
pain" when hypnotized or meditating, says Bushnell. She's concluded that
relaxation techniques can alter the way the brain responds to a painful
sensation and the way a person feels about it.
Further, meditation also may change the neural pathways that
control the physical sensation of pain. Perhaps it works like morphine, says
Bushnell, dampening pain by stimulating the inhibitory nerves that extend from
the brain to the spinal cord, where they block the sensation of pain.
A raisin might not always be a substitute for morphine, but it
appears that meditation can help people control their response to pain -- and
their outlook on life. "The raisin exercise makes you aware of sights,
sounds, scents, and tastes," says Benson. "Now I relax, slow down, and
take time to appreciate things around me -- a bird or a cricket, the wind in
the trees. Meditation makes my life a little more peaceful. It's made me a