Even Brief Mediation Can Help People Deal With Pain Better, Study Finds

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A little dose of mindfulness might ease your perception of pain and unpleasant emotions, a small new study suggests. People who practiced a brief thought exercise before touching something hot or seeing negative images were less affected than people who hadn’t meditated, researchers found.

Mindfulness and meditation—the concept of focusing your thoughts on a specific thing, usually your current surroundings or how your body feels at the moment—has garnered plenty of attention in recent years. Advocates claim that regular mediation can help with everything from stress and high blood pressure to clinical depression. But the evidence for these claims has largely relied on self-reported feedback from people who already practice meditation.

This new research, published in January in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, is instead based on a controlled, albeit very small, trial of people with no prior meditation experience.

Seventeen healthy volunteers were asked to go through two different scenarios while having their brains scanned. In one test, they had to stare at images taken from a long-established database of photos selected to make someone feel negative or neutral (while the database is kept from the public to ensure its novelty, an example of a negative image might include a mutilated body, while a neutral image might be a chair). In the other test, they had a device applied to their forearm that would send off a warm or painfully hot sensation.

Half the time, in both tests, the volunteers were asked to either react naturally or to practice a mindfulness exercise they had learned before the experiment. In the temperature test, for instance, volunteers trying to be mindful were told: “If you feel a sensation of warmth on your forearm, you should simply attend to what is felt, without making any judgment of the ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ of that sensation.”

On average, the volunteers reported feeling less pain and negative emotion when meditating than when reacting normally. These feelings also seemed to line up with reduced brain activity in certain areas of the brain that help us process pain and emotion. At the same time, there wasn’t an increase of brain activity in areas responsible for conscious thinking and decision-making, suggesting that people weren’t simply trying to will away their bad feelings.

Nifty as the study is, it relies on a very small sample size, so we can’t put too much stock in it. Just like with every other treatment or medical intervention, mindfulness might not be right for everyone. But given the relative lack of options to treat pain, it’s definitely worth studying further. At least one randomised trial has shown that mindfulness may help people living with chronic pain better deal with their condition, though not necessarily by reducing their perception of pain.

“The ability to stay in the moment when experiencing pain or negative emotions suggests there may be clinical benefits to mindfulness practice in chronic conditions as well—even without long meditation practice,” said lead author Hedy Kober, associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at Yale University, in a statement released by the university.

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