The connection between the body and mind is complex and fascinating. In 1664 Descartes proposed a revolutionary, at the time, idea suggesting that the body was like a machine, and that pain was a response to damage in the body, with impulses passing along nerve fibers until the pain message reached the brain. The more the damage, the more impulses and the greater the pain.
It was not until 1965, when the Pain Gate Theory came along, that is was suggested that the link between tissue damage and amount of pain felt was not clear-cut. There were other factors affecting the amount of pain, including what was going on in the mind. For example, if we were already tense or frightened, we would feel more pain. These ideas have been developed over that last 50 years, and it is now widely accepted that pain is very complex and affected by a range of psychological factors as well as physical ones.
Sometimes it can feel as if our mind is actually working against us. For example, if we strain our back, our mind tenses the back muscles, to stiffen our spine and prevent, as it thinks, further damage. For a short time, this can be helpful and can protect the back as it recovers from the strain. However, if the pain has been severe, we can become quite fearful of moving the back, in case the pain returns. So, we subconsciously send messages to the mind, to keep the muscles tense. Tense muscles mean stiff joints and tense muscles can also become painful in themselves – these muscles are not designed to be tense all the time. So, although the back is actually healing, the pain can feel worse.
The pain can go on to become chronic, with the muscles staying constantly in a state of tension, without us even being aware what is happening. This is where mindfulness can really help. Mindfulness teaches us to be aware of what is happening in our bodies and to notice any feelings of tension. When we become aware of these sensations, we often find that the tension gradually lessens. If the muscle tension reduces, we may find that the pain also lessens a little.
Mindfulness can help us to break the downward spiral of pain and regain control over our lives.
Sheila Bond is the Founder of Living Well Mindfulness. Sheila’s mission is to ease the suffering caused by pain, stress and illness and really improve people’s quality of life.