Mindful Pain Management

Pregnant with my first child and five days past my due date, it’s hard not to think about how this baby isn’t getting any smaller. The basic tenant of mindfulness meditation— to bring a curious attention to present moment experiences— has never felt more important to practice or more challenging to remember.

Luckily, my relationship to unavoidable pain has evolved over the past nine months and has even developed into an (admittedly fragile) sense of optimism. This change in attitude has largely been due to reading about and practicing mindful pain management throughout my pregnancy. 

Brain scientists are discovering that the Buddha was right; pain and suffering are not one and the same, but rather distinct categories of experience. While we may not always be able to eliminate physical pain, through meditation we can learn to regulate the psychological suffering that often makes our experience of pain more acute. The article Buddhism’s Pain Relief explains the fascinating research behind meditation and its impact on our experience of suffering. 

The author describes how, with regular practice, meditation techniques like the Body Scan can help us to develop a more balanced perception of our bodies, allowing us to tune in and out of pleasant and unpleasant sensations at will. Here is a link to a guided Body Scan by Tara Brach that I enjoy.   

Throughout my pregnancy, I have relied on my growing ability to focus my attention on my body as a whole, rather than narrowing my attention onto my aches and pains. For example, if my back is sore, I imagine that sensation floating in my awareness and investigate it with curiosity, noticing how the feeling changes from moment to moment. Next, I scan the rest of my body. My left foot is warm and cozy. My legs feel light. I feel a pulsing in my hands. My experience of the comfortable parts of my body relaxes me and I am able to confidently return to the site of discomfort and monitor it some more. By repeating this process, I avoid panic and the resulting muscle tension that would worsen my back pain. Even if this technique is only used until that Tylenol (or epidural) kicks in, just knowing that there is an all-natural tool I can rely on decreases my anxiety and my perception of pain. 

Labour is an extreme example of no pain, no gain. While research suggests we may not be able to avoid pain, suffering is an experience that we have some agency over. And we do, in fact, have much to gain by opting out of it. I’ll put this theory to the ultimate test soon and let you know how it goes!

Kristen Swanson