There have been studies looking at how the mind processes acute pain at the sensory level. Subjects are randomized between two groups, then given the cold pressor test, where a tourniquet is placed around your bicep, then you stick your arm into ice water. There's no more blood flow, so your arm gets very painful very fast. They measure how long you can keep your arm in the water as a function of whether you are given an attentional strategy, such as paying attention to the sensations and really moving into them and being with them as nonjudgmentally as you can—a mindfulness strategy, in other words—or a distraction strategy, where you just try to think about other things and tune out the pain. What they found was that in the early minutes of having your arm in the ice water, distraction works better than mindfulness: You're less aware of the discomfort because you're telling yourself a story, or remembering something, or having a fantasy. But after the arm is in the cold water for a while, mindfulness becomes much more powerful than distraction for tolerating the pain. While distraction alone, once it breaks down and doesn’t work, you’ve got nothing.So learning and practicing mindfulness is going to give a major pay-off when we're faced with really intractible pain. And I want to remind everybody that this is true for emotional pain as well as physical pain. Mindfulness is the tool we need for relating skillfully with our pain - no matter what kind of pain it is.
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
Some interesting research on pain
This morning I found another interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn - this one about pain. Here's a research finding that is very interesting indeed: