Hocus Pocus or Strong with the Force? What you need to know about 
Mindfulness & Chronic Pain

Written by: Kevin Murray


When someone asks you to be more mindful, what are they actually saying? Is it a request to be more polite? Hold the door open for those you don’t know? Remember your please and thank-you’s? Not quite… While the aforementioned are respectful and conscientious, practicing mindfulness goes beyond the realm of external exchanges.

In fact, Stuart Eisendrath, a medical doctor and professor of clinical psychiatry at the UCSF Depression Center explains that mindfulness takes place when someone is paying attention, deliberately and purposefully, on the present moment in a non-judgemental way. Succinctly put, mindfulness means focusing ones’ attention in this present moment and letting go of the future, letting go of the past, and being aware of what’s present right now.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapists, Counsellors and Psychologists alike understand the influence and relevance of Mindfulness and implement its principles to assist their clients’ and patients within myriad of spectrum’s. The application of Mindfulness is used for conditions such as:

  • Stress reduction
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Psoriasis
  • Eating disorders
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Cancer
  • Addition
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Chronic pain

So clearly mindfulness goes beyond the realm of trying to draw a connection between your hip flexors and your big toe. In point of fact, if right now you’re asking yourself “in this present moment, is the author going to get to the point and explain how Mindfulness can be beneficial to my clients’ in pain?”, you are actually practicing mindfulness (expect for the potential judgemental tone in your voice).

Mindfulness and Chronic Pain

Did you notice the last bullet point above? Yes, being mindful and cognizant of our thoughts, emotions, and beliefs regarding chronic pain can influence an individuals pain experience. And because an individuals pain experience goes beyond just their biomechanical profile, placing an emphasis on Mindfulness can yield substantial dividends within the psycho-social domain.

Fixating on future events and the uncertainty they encompass can heighten states of anxiety and nervousness (psycho), and therefore inflate levels of apprehension and avoidance behavior (social) – whether chronic pain is present or not. Speaking specifically to anxiety, avoidance behavior and chronic pain, this mixture can (and often does) lead individuals to catastrophize their fears (frequently around movement) and believe something is much worse than it actually is based on speculative evidence which hasn’t even occurred yet.

If you’re a fan of Star Wars like I am (minus the prequels of course), perhaps you remember the scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Luke – who is training with Yoda – asks “what’s in there?” inquiring about a place he feels uncertain about; to which Yoda replies “only what you take with you”.

Our minds have the capacity to devise hypothetical schemes that can perpetuate fears and anxieties into a rigid reality where the adaptive function of a pain output no longer serves its intended purpose. It’s in these moments where practicing Mindfulness and concentrating on the here and now (without judgment) can transition an irrational thought or belief into an accurate representation of what’s taking place in the present moment.

Mindfulness, Chronic Pain and a Wandering Mind

Have you ever heard a Yoga instructor ask you to “clear your mind of all thoughts.” If so, were you successful? Chances are your mind wandered. It’s OK, don’t be too hard on yourself. Heck, even Luke Skywalker had a difficult time clearing his mind of thoughts and he had Yoda as his teacher! As Dr. Eisendrath speaks to, what happens with Mindfulness and meditation is “you focus your attention, and then your mind wanders. It’s very common for thoughts to be popping into our minds unbidden. It’s completely normal whether you’re the most advanced meditator or not.”

Eisendrath points to how if we are not mindful or cognizant of our thought process, we can easily be fooled into jumping to negative conclusions without any supporting evidence. And when chronic pain is present, a wandering mind often constructs an inaccurate story from inadequate information.

By focusing purposely on our present thoughts, intuitive errors in judgement are reduced and jumping to conclusions are replaced with conscious mental constructs which are more accurate and reliable.

Hocus Pocus or Strong with the Force?

By blending evidence-based cognitive and pain science with an appropriate amount of artistry and pragmatism we’re able to move beyond the realm of ‘Hocus Pocus’ and ‘Guru’ labels and influence clients’ from a 3-dimensional bio-psycho-social paradigm, encompassing myriad of positive and adaptive benefits for individuals’ experiencing chronic pain.

Luke Skywalker and Yoda would surely agree that the practice of Mindfulness is indeed strong with the force and synthesizing the principles of Mindfulness into a movement or manual-based approach can yield a positive surplus towards reducing ambiguities and mitigating uncertainty for individuals in pain.

Question: Do you implement Mindfulness as part of your approach to serving those in chronic pain? If so, share your insights and client success stories! You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Written by:
Kevin Murray, M.A. (pending)

Movement Masterminds – CEO
Function First – Director of Education
2012 CSEP CPT of the Year