Arthritis affects 46 million Americans – about one of every four of us. In previous generations, the effects of arthritis were considered simply as part of aging. That meant no one allotted much time or thought to management of the symptoms.
Now we can use methods such as brain imaging to look at the effects of pain and at the effects of cognitive and mindfulness techniques on pain.
Some of the newest research has differentiated physical pain from the mental anguish caused by our response to pain. Simply put, we can focus on the physiology of the pain – how it feels on our bodies, in our bodies. We can also focus on how “old” the pain makes us feel, how scared we are of the pain, how betrayed we feel by our bodies, or how sad we feel to be burdened with the pain, in this case the pain of arthritis.
By focusing merely on the reality of chronic physiological pain, we remove the other layers and allow our awareness to decipher the pain. This is different from “wallowing” in the pain, which is emotional – or enjoying pain, which is also an aberrant response. It is simply focusing on why the pain starts and ends – and the heat, sharpness, throbbing, itching, and stretching of it. In this way, you come to know your pain rather than succumbing to it. Mindfulness techniques are very useful with this manner of dealing with pain.
The opposite way to deal with pain is to distract yourself by engaging in an array of alternative activities that move focus from the pain into a healthy area. Imagine the patient who may have painful arthritis in the knee area, but finds great pleasure in knitting and forgets about the pain. This utilizes another ability of the brain to focus. (Yes, so much of our lives are based on ability to focus.) By focusing on the yarn and the repetitive knotting that is knitting, the focus is removed from the knee pain, bringing a respite from the irritation, the inflammation, the sensation.
The bottom line is choosing to focus on the pain while removing yourself from the emotional baggage or distracting yourself from pain by focusing on other activities using body parts that are not compromised.
Helpful choices: Experiment and teach yourself about focusing. And as always in our world check out the Internet – see mindfulness.com for some good beginning ideas.
Ann M. Pardo, MA, LPC