Walking on Hot Coals

So I ran across an article about pain sensitivity and its relationship to mindfulness. Zeidan et al (see Library) did a study that essentially took people who did not practice or study meditation and categorized them as “mindful” people or not using assessments that I have to look into. Then they gave them pain and measured how their brains reacted to the pain (heat).

In short, people who were “mindful” were less affected by the pain, both in how they rated the pain and with physical brain reactions to the pain.

Zeidan et al define “trait mindfulness” as ” the innate propensity to be aware of the present moment in a non-reactive manner.” This is something I’ve become aware of in cognitive behavioral therapy, and also in how I deal with pain, but only in a way. I’ve always said ignore it. It’s not real or it’s not an indication of something actually wrong with me, so just let it go. Accept it, move on. In a way that’s mindfulness. Essentially it’s saying, be conscious of what’s going on around you and accept it without reacting to it. The “non-reactive manner” is an important part of the equation. So if you are able to do that – mindfulness – then your pain centers deactivate or depress and you feel less pain, not only as subjectively reported, but also your brain activates differently and sends a different type of signal to your body. I immediately thought of the people who can walk on hot coals or lay on nail beds. What I didn’t know was that the brain reacts differently with that kind of willful mindfulness to reduce the pain on a physical level.

One thing that jumped out at me, however, is that for the trial subjects, the researchers eliminated anyone with ongoing or chronic pain. So step two is needed, I think, to determine whether mindfulness works on people with chronic pain too. The authors were willing, however, to go out on a limb and note that people who are not mindful of their chronic pain tend to abuse opioids and alcohol. Okay, they were referencing someone else’s work that I have to find now, so I’ll give them that. My question is, since they eliminated studying chronic pain to determine the power of the mind over the brain, do the brains of people with chronic pain react the same way with mindfulness? Maybe it does but on a lesser scale? Maybe people who have chronic pain can’t practice mindfulness to the level needed to reduce pain? I doubt it. But I would be interested in comparing between two groups, those who practice mindfulness with chronic pain and those who practice without.

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