Meditation is a powerful tool for rewiring the brain’s emotional and physical responses—both critical when it comes to managing chronic pain.
Dr. Christiane Wolf is a meditation teacher, physician, and life coach who speaks extensively on the ability of mindfulness practices to alleviate chronic pain. Meditation changes lives, she says, by teaching people how to cope and expanding patients’ ideas of who they are.
Wolf tells Huffington Post:
“Mindfulness can help reduce pain because it removes the worry about it…emotional and mental tension can add to physical pain. I have seen chronic pain go away via mindfulness. With systemic pain that does have a cause, mindfulness helps people cope better…One student said, ‘I used to be my pain. Now I’m much more.’”
Dr. Christiane Wolf career in meditation
Dr. Christiane Wolf says her long-time meditation practice has shaped her life for the better.
Wolf, who lives and teaches in Los Angeles, has been meditating for more than 25 years. She began meditating while a teenager living in her native Germany, but the decision to turn this passion into a profession didn’t happen until much later in life. When the time came to select a career, Wolf chose medicine and became a practicing obstetrician gynecologist.
In 2003, she moved to the U.S. with her husband and daughter. Soon after, a chance encounter led Wolf to meet mindfulness teacher Trudy Goodman, who encouraged Wolf to teach meditation and train in mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR).
MBSR is a special technique developed by renowned teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn that combines mindfulness meditation—commonly associated with Buddhism—with yoga, according to the University of Massachusetts Amherst Medical School’s Center for Mindfulness.
Wolf helped Goodman found InsightLA, a non-profit meditation center that works closely with the community-at-large, but also the medical community, tackling tough issues like helping staff in pediatric intensive care units manage the grief that comes from mourning the losses of their young patients. InsightLA also works with corporations, prison inmates, clergy members, and everyone else wanting to benefit from the vast benefits of mindfulness and meditation.
Wolf continued her academic studies, eventually earning a PhD in psychosomatic medicine from California’s Humboldt University. To further her life coaching studies, Wolf received the Martha Beck Life Coach certification. Beck is a famous life coach who studied at Harvard and has a monthly column in Oprah Magazine.
Wolf says meditation has the potential to change people’s lives in a much different way than medicine. She tells Huffington Post:
“As a physician, my job was to ‘fix’ people. As a mindfulness instructor, I give them tools to heal themselves. That’s really different.”
How does meditation help chronic pain patients?
While pain and suffering are typically viewed together as a joint experience, Wolf tells Huffington Post that the two experiences are actually separate. She says:
“Nobody likes pain. But just because something is unpleasant doesn’t mean we have to suffer or react against it. Think of a time when you had pain, but no suffering was involved, like getting a tattoo or giving birth.”
Meditation helps practitioners dig into their experiences and separate the physical pain from the emotional pain of suffering. Wolf says that separating pain from suffering and evaluating them independently helps pain become less overwhelming. She adds:
“We don’t often look at how we feel about the pain. What emotion is connected to the pain? Are you feeling sad, angry, or another emotion about it?”
When meditation practitioners begin to separate physical pain from the emotions that surround it, it opens up the possibility of feeling pain while also feeling more positive emotions—or at the very least, fewer negative ones.
Wolf says that the stories we tell ourselves about pain often make it worse. She says patients often fixate on an internal narrative, thinking that this certain condition or pain will prevent them from participating in a certain activity for the rest of their lives, which may or may not be true. She adds:
“Mindfulness brings you into the present moment. Instead of ruminating or rehearsing, be present and see how you actually feel.”
How do I start mindfulness meditation?
Wolf’s blog also offers many tips for meditating, whether you’re looking to start or improve a practice. One important thing to consider, she writes, is telling your family members about your meditation practice, letting them know when you plan to meditate and that it’s important to leave you undisturbed.
If someone does knock on the door or try to disturb you, Wolf says to be firm in protecting your time and eventually people will learn that this time is sacred. Pets may also want to join you, but if they bother you by moving around too much or making excessive noise, don’t hesitate to lock them out. This is your special time.
Finding a good place where you can have peace and quiet is also important. It’s best to meditate in a space with a door that allows you to create a sense of privacy and keep others out.
Experiment with different places, cushions, and sitting postures until you find a mix that makes you feel comfortable. Making that upfront effort to feel comfortable will pay off, allowing you to completely focus on the practice and let everything else go.
Routine is also essential. Starting the habit of meditation can be difficult at first, so it’s best to practice at the same time every day. Many people enjoy meditating first thing in the morning. It sets the tone for a peaceful day. However, it can also be good to meditate at night, helping to quiet the mind before drifting off to sleep.
When first starting, try setting an alarm reminder on your cell phone so you don’t forget. Once you develop the habit, you’ll actually look forward to meditating. But until then, take advantage of all the reminders you can get.
Have you found that meditating helps reduce chronic pain?
Image by Sebastien Wiertz via Flickr