What is "Mindfulness" and How Does Mindfulness Work?

Carolyn McManus, PT, MS, MA is the author and instructor of "Mindfulness Based Pain Treatment: A Biopsychosocial Approach to the Treatment of Chronic Pain". Carolyn is a specialist in managing chronic pain, and has incorporated mindfulness meditation into her practice for more than 2 decades. Today she is sharing her experience by analyzing some of the most foundational research in the field of mindfulness and meditation.

Mindfulness awareness has been described as the sustained attention to present moment awareness while adopting attitudes of acceptance, friendliness and curiosity. (1,2) In patients with persistent pain, mindfulness has shown to reduce pain intensity, anxiety and depression and in improve quality of life. (3,4) Researchers suggest that mindful awareness may work through 4 mechanisms: attention regulation, increased body awareness, enhanced emotional regulation and changes in perspective on self. (5)

1. Attention Regulation: In chronic pan populations, improved attention regulation has been suggested to result in less negative appraisal of pain, greater pain acceptance and reduced pain anticipation. (6)

2. Body Awareness: Improved body awareness has been shown to help patients with chronic pain recognize the difference between muscle tension and relaxation, identify early warning signs that precede a pain flare and reduce maladaptive reactions to pain. (7)

3. Emotional regulation: Training in mindful awareness has been shown to enhance emotional regulation, improve mood and reduce anxiety and depression in patients with chronic pain. (6, 7, 8)

4. Changes in Perspective on Self: In a qualitative study, participants with chronic pain reported becoming less identified with their pain condition or diagnostic label. (7) They felt less “fragmented, experienced a greater integration of mind any body and described the experience of wellness even though they had a persistent pain condition.

I constantly see these changes in my patients who learn to be mindful. Empowered with a skillful way to pay attention, they have greater control over the direction of their mind and thoughts and an increase in body awareness that promotes the ability to relax and the self-regulation of their stress reaction. They avoid escalating distressing emotions and experience a renewed feeling of wholeness and well-being. I am delighted to share my training and experience in mindfulness and years of teaching mindfulness to patients in persistent pain through Herman and Wallace continuing education programs.

1. Kabat Zinn, J., 2013. Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness. 2nd ed. New York: Bantam.
2. Bishop, S.R., Lau, M., Shapiro, S., et al., 2004. Mindfulness: A proposed operational definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11(3), pp. 230–41.
3. Lakhan, S.E., Schofield, K.L., 2013. Mindfulness-based therapies in the treatment of somatization disorders: a systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One, 8(8), e71834.
4. Reiner, K., Tibi, L., Lipsitz, J.D., 2013. Do mindfulness-based interventions reduce pain intensity? A critical review of the literature. Pain Med, 14(2), pp. 230-42.
5. Holzel, B.K., Lazar, S.W., Guard, T., et al., 2011. How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work? Proposing Mechanisms of Action From a Conceptual and Neural Perspective. Perspect Psychol Science, 6, pp. 537–59.
6. Brown, C.A., Jones, A.K., 2013. Psychobiological correlates of improved mental health in patients with musculoskeletal pain after a mindfulness based pain management program. Clin J Pain, 29(3), pp. 233-44.
7. Doran, N.J., 2014. Experiencing wellness within illness: Exploring a mindfulness-based approach to chronic back pain. Qual Health Res, 24(6), pp. 749-60.
8. Song, Y., Lu H., Chen H., et al. Mindfulness intervention in the management of chronic pain and psychological comorbidity: A meta-analysis. Int J Nurs Sci, 1(2), pp.215-23.

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