Why Mindfulness Can Actually Make You Feel Less Pain

Photo: Aleksandra Jankovic

By now, the enormously powerful effects mindfulness can have on your mind and soul are well-documented: A good mindfulness meditation can significantly reduce stress, anxiety, and other depressive symptoms, and being mindful can also help you process emotions more clearly, improve your memory and other cognitive functions, and even make sex more enjoyable.

Now, new research is adding a discrete bodily effect to that list as well: Mindful people might actually feel less pain than others do.

The study, conducted at the Wake Forest School of Medicine, asked 76 healthy people who'd never meditated before to answer a questionnaire meant to determine how naturally mindful they are. (They rated how much they agreed with statements like "I sense my body, whether eating, cooking, cleaning, or talking" and "When I notice an absence of mind, I gently return to the experience of the here and now.") Then the participants were stung with a hot probe while under an MRI and later asked to rate how much it hurt. More innately mindful people reported feeling less pain than the less mindful folks.

When the researchers looked at the MRI scans, they found more dispositional mindfulness was associated with greater deactivation of the posterior cingulate cortex, a central part of what's called the brain's "default mode" network. The default mode network is in play when your mind is wandering or processing feelings about yourself. When you're performing a task like reading or writing, that network slows down as the brain allocates resources to other areas.

"Mindfulness is related to being aware of the present moment without too much emotional reaction or judgment," Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., a Wake Forest neurobiology professor and lead author of the study, explained in a news release. "The results from our study showed that mindful individuals are seemingly less caught up in the experience of pain, which was associated with lower pain reports."

In other words, mindful people could observe the physical sensation of pain without attaching an emotional response to it, leading to what functionally manifested as lower pain sensitivity.

Dr. Zeidan said these findings support the use of mindfulness and meditation as potential pain-processing therapeutic measures. If you're dealing with physical pain, consider starting a meditation practice (here's a handy list of online meditation resources) or finding other ways to strengthen your innate mindfulness. You might be surprised by how much a mindful posture toward life can affect the way you're experiencing it, both spiritually and physically.

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