One of the most profound but least appreciated effects of chronic pain is the toll it takes on mental well-being. People with chronic pain have high rates of anxiety, depression, anger, and even grief. Not because the pain is “in their heads,” but because pain has a way of making you question who you are and what is possible for your life.
If you don’t have chronic pain, try to imagine what it would be like to experience persistent and often unexplainable pain. To wake up in a body that doesn’t function like it used to, and to find every part of your life disrupted. To not know if you will feel better tomorrow, next week, next month, or ever. To find that your friends, family, and coworkers don’t understand what you are going through. Who wouldn’t feel betrayed by their body, anxious about the future, and sadness about what might be lost?
Many people with pain find some relief and hope from psychological therapy, support groups, and medications like antidepressants. All of these can be important resources for dealing with the psychological consequences of chronic pain.
Mind-body practices like yoga and meditation are another powerful resource for reconnecting to the part of you that is glad to be alive, and can find meaning in each moment (even the hard days). One reason is that yoga philosophy places deep, unshakable joy—a natural sense of well-being, gratitude, and peace—as the deepest aspect of what it means to be human. You might have felt this kind of joy at special moments in your life—the birth of a child, the view of a sunset, or while immersed in hands-on or creative work. These glimpses are not dependent on external events. It is simply easier to be in touch with your natural state of well-being in these special moments.
In the yogic view, joy is the closest to what you might call your true nature. It is not a fast-changing, fast-disappearing happiness that fluctuates according to your thoughts, mood, and present circumstances. Yoga teaches us that the ability to feel at peace in this moment is central to who you are. This inner joy is less vulnerable to the changes in your life, and it is not dependent on fixing what is wrong or getting what you want. Even chronic pain cannot take away your ability to feel this part of yourself.
Yoga practice helps you reconnect to this inner joy. Whether it’s a meditation on gratitude, a relaxation pose that puts the body and mind at ease, or a breathing exercise that strengthens the flow of energy in your body—they all share the benefit of bringing you back home to your natural sense of well-being.
The Breath of Joy
(Excerpted from Breathing Practices for Pain and Stress Relief)
Come into a comfortable upright position, seated or standing. Place your hands over your heart, and notice the natural movement of breath under your hands. Relax your face, neck, and shoulders.
As you inhale, feel the breath expand the lower belly, upper belly, rib cage, and chest. Feel each area expand gently, like a wave that starts in the lower belly and crests at your heart. Be patient with each inhalation and keep inviting the breath in (without strain) until you feel comfortably full and radiant with breath. As you exhale, let the breath go without effort. You might even open your mouth and let the exhalation be an easy, soft sigh. Both the inhalation and exhalation should be free of tension. Have the feeling that you are
receiving each breath and welcoming it with an open heart. Keep a soft smile on your face.
Once you connect to the feeling of the breath, close your eyes. Feel your heart center, right underneath your hands. Visualize one of the following in your heart center: your physical heart, resting between your lungs; a sun, glowing brightly; or a sphere of light in your favorite color. Imagine it expanding as you inhale and contracting as you exhale. Connect to the visual image of it expanding and contracting, as well as to the feeling of it expanding and contracting. Another visualization that can help is to imagine breathing directly into and out of the center of your chest, into and out of both the heart and lungs.
Summary: Breathe into the belly, rib cage, and chest with a soft smile on your face and the image of your heart expanding.
Practice: For ten breaths, or as long as is needed and helpful, anytime to reconnect to the inner joy that is your true nature.
Kelly McGonigal, PhD ~ www.kellymcgonigal.com
Yoga for Pain Relief: Simple Practices to Calm Your Mindis now available at Amazon.com.
and Heal Your Chronic Pain
Sara's note: Thank you Kelly for this insightful look into the psychology of chronic pain and for including a helpful and soothing breath practice. Namaste.