Research Explains How Mindfulness Meditations Remove Pain and Stress
The mindfulness meditations of Jon Kabat-Zinn
Seasoned meditators report that mindfulness practices, including the body scan technique (focus on the breath, followed by a slow and systematic scan of the body sensations, head to toe) results in dissolution of the pain into pure sensation. Based on his personal experience with Vipassana, Burmese form of Buddhist meditation, Jon Kabat-Zinn got the idea of applying some of these mindfulness tools to help patients manage chronic pain without the use of medically administered narcotics. He believed that mindfulness could help them disconnect the cognitive and emotional components of their experience of pain from the pure sensation.
Since most patients lack preparatory training in meditation and find it difficult to sit still in a (semi)lotus pose for a prolonged period, Zinn developed an innovative approach. By combining elements of Yoga, Zen and Vipassana, he developed a new form of meditation, a lying-down full body scan meditation. Thanks to this method, people suffering from long-term chronic pain were now able to change their relationship to any sensation they felt somewhere in the body, even when those sensations were extremely uncomfortable. Zinn also developed two other meditation techniques—the sitting meditation (breath-awareness meditation where one lets go of any thoughts and sensations that arise), mindful walking, mindful eating, and mindful living.
These techniques became part of a program called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) which, since 1979, has been taught in numerous clinics, hospitals, and business offices around the world. The program boosts one’s ability to handle stress and helps people manage various disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and social anxiety disorder. Using Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), scientists at Stanford University confirmed that the MBSR method lowers the activity of the amygdala (the brain center known as the core fear system or the brain radar for threat) and strengthens the attentional neural networks in the brain.
The Tibetan mindful attention practice of Alan Wallace
Alan Wallace developed the Mindful Attention Training (MAT)—a mindfulness program based on Tibetan Buddhism—and made it widely accessible in the West. In brief, the program consists of focused breath-awareness, followed by attention to the mind stream flow, and culminates in a subtle awareness of awareness itself.
A scientific study conducted at Emory University measured the effect of MAT practice on the activity in different brain regions. They found that after eight weeks of MAT practice, there was a reduced amygdala activity when participants were shown disturbing images. In other words, meditation calms the amygdala, and so the emotional reactions of meditators are less intense compared to those of nonmeditators.
How practitioners of mindfulness meditation experience pain
Meditation alters one’s perception of pain. As a result of the awareness that is achieved during a practice of mindfulness, any unpleasant or painful sensation decouples from its emotional component. What used to be felt as pain breaks down into less visceral and less intense components, such as throbbing, intensity or heat. When that happens, the experience becomes more bearable. For example, a study using brain scans has confirmed that experienced Zen meditators were more tolerant to pain and less prone to experiencing stress because of painful experiences. Their threshold to pain caused by exposure to heat was 2°C higher than that of nonmeditators. During exposure to pain, ‘their executive, evaluative, and emotion regions of the brain showed little activity,’ which is a sign that their brains decoupled the pain felt by their sensory circuitry from their thoughts and feelings.
Meditators have higher resilience to stress
In one meticulously designed experiment, scientists measured the ability of individuals to refrain from acting impulsively and found that meditators not only have higher capacity to control this impulse, but that they also get better at it, the more they advance in their mindfulness practice. Individuals who have the ability to control the urge for acting on whim are less prone to developing anxiety, are better at emotional regulations, and have a better overall sense of well-being. Most importantly, scientists were able to confirm that, even five months after the end of the mindfulness retreat, the participants still retained their skills—an indicator of a lasting altered trait.
In another experiment conducted on schoolteachers, scientists simulated a stressful job interview followed by an intimidating mental-math challenge. The study found that those teachers who had practiced meditation recovered from the stressful experience quicker compared to the teachers in the control group. A measure of recovery was the speed with which their blood pressure stabilized following the peak stressful moment of the experiment.
Other experiments have confirmed that seasoned meditators, who spend several hours daily in meditation, have a smaller rise in cortisol (stress hormone) during a stressful experience. Furthermore, compared to nonmeditators, experienced meditators also perceive a situation as less stressful. Their brain scans also show lower reactivity in the amygdala region, indicating that they are less susceptible to emotional hijacking. Long-term meditators also have stronger connection between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. As a result, at the time of a major life crisis, they have much higher ability to manage stress.
It is important to emphasize that, even though short-term meditation improves an individual’s resilience to stress, a trait effect develops only as a result of repeated, long-term practice. Seasoned meditators are better at regulating their emotions, have higher thresholds to pain, and recover from stress much more rapidly.
~Based on the book “The Science of Meditation: How to Change Your Brain, Mind and Body” by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson. Penguin Life. UK, 2017.