I have worked with many individuals with chronic pain in clinics and in research studies. My father also lived with chronic pain. From my experiences with these individuals and communities and also based on what we know from the documentation in research is that a large percentage of people with chronic pain conditions, such as fibromyalgia or low back pain, experience mental health concerns such as depression. This means that the two conditions can co-occur, but we are not certain about which condition is more likely to occur first. Regardless, research has shown that the way people think and feel about chronic pain can negatively impact their emotions and stress. Conversely, being more mindful on a regular basis may help people to enjoy and live their lives well in spite of chronic pain.
You might be thinking: what does being mindful on a regular basis mean exactly?
Everyday mindfulness is described as a tendency to frequently focus on the present moment and to be open, curious about, non-judgmental, aware, and accepting of one’s thoughts, feelings, and sensations. In two recent studies that I took a lead on, we tried to understand whether this kind of mindfulness seemed to happen more often in people reporting less difficulties with chronic pain and depression and stress. We reviewed responses to an online survey from a total of 211 adults with fibromyalgia and/or chronic musculoskeletal pain. The respondents answered questions rating how often they were being mindful with 12 statements about their mindfulness, such as “I am able to focus on the present moment”, “I try to notice my thoughts without judging them”, or “I am able to accept the thoughts and feelings I have”. They also answered questions indicating how often they had recently experienced symptoms of depression, how often they had recently experienced stress, and how often they had negative thoughts about their pain, such as “It’s terrible and I think it’s never going to get any better.” Some of the respondents were also asked to rate the intensity of their pain over the last week and how much their chronic pain interfered with their health and participation in activities.
In both of the studies we found that, regardless of the intensity of their pain or the type of pain condition, when the respondents reported that they were being more mindful on a regular or more frequent basis they tended to also report less symptoms of depression. We also found that, regardless of the intensity of their pain, the respondents who reported being more mindful more often tended to report less frequent stress, less interference in everyday activities from their pain, and less frequent negative thoughts about their pain.
The take-away from these studies is that regular mindfulness practice may help people with chronic pain to better cope with pain. Everyday mindfulness may make it easier for individuals with chronic pain to manage stress and depressed mood and help them with staying engaged in valued life activities. People with chronic pain then might want to consider trying mindfulness as a coping strategy. Mindfulness is an intervention and strategy that many therapists have training in and can help persons with chronic pain to learn and practice in and outside of sessions.
To learn more about these studies check out:
Brooks, J. M., Blake, J., Iwanaga, K., Chiu, C. Y., Cotton, B. P., Morrison, B., Deiches, J., & Chan, F. (2018). Perceived mindfulness and depressive symptoms among people with chronic pain. The Journal of Rehabilitation, 84(2), 33-39.
Brooks, J. M., Muller, V., Sánchez, J., Johnson, E. T., Chiu, C. Y., Cotton, B., Lohman, M., Catalano, D., Bartels, S., & Chan, F. (2018). Mindfulness as a protective factor against depression in people with fibromyalgia. Journal of Mental Health, 22, 1-7. doi: 10.1080/09638237.2017.1417555