There are some discussions of mindfulness practice is an effective strategy for managing chronic pain. As discussed previously, lower back pain clinical guidelines do include mindfulness practice in their recommendation. However, research in this area is still lacking.
This post largely describes my previous experience with mindfulness practice. A subsequent blog post will detail my experience with three mindfulness/meditation apps and how I think it might possible fit into your current lifestyle or chronic pain management.
Again, this is a recount of my personal experience with mindfulness practice. I have no formal training in that field and do not claim to have any expertise in that area.
Encounter 1: Murdoch University
My first encounter with mindfulness practice was with Wendy Voysey. She was a psychologist who ran leadership programs for Integral Development in Perth. (She is now a clinical psychologist with the Department of Education, Western Australia.) I attended one of her workshops as part of the Murdoch Student Emerging Leader program.
It was a good introduction to mindfulness practice. We did the usual mindful breathing exercise as well as a body scan exercise. For the first exercise, the idea is to be aware of your breathing and also to keep your mind focus on it. For the second, it is about being aware of the sensations that you feel as you are seated. Again, there is an element of being focused on being in the present moment of experiencing the physical sensations. Although it didn’t leave much of an impression, it was a pleasant first encounter.
Encounter 2: Naked Nights – A Celebration of Vulnerability
My second encounter was a couple of years later in Singapore. It was an event series called Naked Nights: A Celebration of Vulnerability by Olivia Coleon. Naked Nights was born from the question: Where and how do moments of real creativity, engagement and connection occur? Their mission is to normalise vulnerability by making it fun, inclusive and meaningful.
One of their guest speakers was Scott Doughty. He is an executive coach and meditation trainer. During the session he shared about his experience leaving a corporate job to, I believe, starting his own wellness company. He led the group through a mindfulness practice session that closely resembled my experience with Wendy Voysey.
Encounter 3: Forest Wolf and CtrlShift
The next two mindfulness practice encounters are both at Straits Clan. They were similar to the first two sessions I’ve had but both experiences were remarkably different.
The first was with Crystal Lim-Lange from Forest Wolf and Reza Behnam from CtrlShift. It was one of the Strait Talk events – a Straits Clan program for members to come together to explore specific topics/themes.
The session started like previous sessions – we did some breath work mindfulness practice as well as body scan to kickstart the evening. Because it was a small group setting, we had a chance to talk about what we feel through each exercise. In doing so, we realised every one had a different experience. We had a chance to explore what a mindfulness experience is at an individual level and it was mind blowing.
The discussions were incredible because I think we started to pay attention to our wandering thoughts that we never paid attention to before.
One of the talking points was about how mindfulness practice puts you in a head space to consider your current situation (awareness) before responding to it. The idea is that being conscious of your current state, and taking the time to process your options, allows you to do what you truly want.
The opposite is being reactive where you make a decision based on your instincts or reflexes without full awareness or consideration of what the situation may actually be. (E.g. People who intuitively crack their neck without realising they did would be a good example of being non-aware.)
In the context of that discussion, I brought up what it means to overcome failures – how do we differentiate choosing to overcome our failures because we want to be better vs. choosing to overcome our failures because we want to prove people wrong. In my opinion, the latter is about being vindictive while the former is kind of a pure self-development, progressive intention. Despite the dramatic difference in intent, the outcome or the process in both scenarios can be virtually identical.
The discussion was surprisingly robust. It was an eye opener.
We also went on to partner up with some one we did not know for a mindful listening exercise. Essentially we take turns to talk about whatever we want for a few minutes and the listening person is not allowed to respond for the entire duration.
The most interesting part of this exercise, for me, was how often I caught myself instinctively responding to what my partner was saying. Without actually needing to process what she said. Shockingly, the responses I would have expressed – if I didn’t have to not respond – would apply regardless of what my partner have said before!
This brought me to consider if I actually do listen to my clients when they are sharing about their pain experience or if I just zone out but yet appear to be engaging and present.
Encounter 4: Potential Project
Those of you who are in the corporate training space might be familiar with Potential Project. They are a global leadership training company. They use mindfulness practice as a tool to help leaders focused their minds and, in doing so, increase both performance and resilience.
It might sound fluffy to you but they are well established with an impressive client list.
I attended one of their Straits Clan talks and our speaker was Moses Mohan.
We did the same breathing exercise as per the previous three encounters. I can’t remember if we did the body scan. There were other exercises and activities that we did to demonstrate how outcomes are inferior if we are being distracted vs. focused.
The event was also education-based. They shared a few research papers on the benefits of mindfulness practice. I didn’t take any photographs of the event and they don’t share their slides either. So, virtually no way I could look into the research papers.
This is also the only mindfulness practice event I have added that actually showed hard data on their benefits. It would be nice if we had a chance to fact check their claims. Even a reference list or appendix would have been ideal.
Mindfulness practice for chronic pain
We do see how mindfulness practice can be useful for people suffering from chronic lower back pain or neck pain, etc – especially in cases where their symptoms are related to sitting posture or staying in the same position for prolonged period of time.
As of now, clinical guidelines recommend mindfulness as a second-line treatment. Mostly because research in this area is fairly new compared to treatments such as chiropractic adjustments or other forms of manual therapy.
We think mindfulness practice works better because it addresses issues that are more coherent with our current biopsychosocial understanding of pain.
Furthermore, it is a self-management approach and it empowers its users to learn how to cope with their own pain. (Unlike manual therapy where it only encourages dependency on the therapist.)
In our recommendation for you to consider mindfulness practice, we acknowledge – again – that research in this area, while promising, is still lacking.
The bright side is that there several app options available for you to start mindfulness practice for free. Although most of these free apps do have extra features that you would have to pay for, we think the basic free version is good enough as an introduction to mindfulness practice.
If you are suffering from lower back pain, neck pain, or any chronic symptoms, give mindfulness practice a shot and let us know what you think.
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