Why 'Mindful People' Feel Less Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

Mindfulness meditation is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that is often recommended to chronic pain patients as a way to temporarily relieve their pain, anxiety and depression. 

Does it work? Pain sufferers report mixed results.

“I have tried CBT and mindfulness. They made me feel much worse emotionally, paradoxically enough, made me more acutely aware of the pain,” one reader told us.

“The quackery continues,” wrote another. “This is a modern day lobotomy experiment.”

“Mindful meditation is a wonderful tool in managing chronic pain and the depression that comes with it,” said another. “Those of us suffering daily need every tool in the shed.”

Researchers at Wake Forest University may have discovered why mindfulness works for some, but not for others. Their brains react differently to meditation.

"We now know that some people are more mindful than others, and those people seemingly feel less pain," said Fadel Zeidan, PhD, an assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest School of Medicine.

 WAKE FOREST UNIVERSITY

WAKE FOREST UNIVERSITY

In a study involving 76 healthy volunteers, Zeidan and his colleagues found that a part of the brain that processes self-related thoughts, feelings and emotions is more active in people who reported higher pain levels during mindfulness meditation.

While practicing mindfulness, MRI’s were taken of the volunteers’ brains as they were exposed to painful heat stimulation (120°F).

Analysis of the MRIs revealed that those who reported lower pain levels when exposed to heat had less activity in the posterior cingulate cortex. Conversely, those that reported higher pain levels had more activity in that critical part of the brain.

"The results from our study showed that mindful individuals are seemingly less caught up in the experience of pain, which was associated with lower pain reports," said Zeidan. "Now we have some new ammunition to target this brain region in the development of effective pain therapies. Importantly this work shows that we should consider one's level of mindfulness when calculating why and how one feels less or more pain." 

The study is being published in the journal PAIN.

A previous study by Zeidan found that mindfulness activates parts of the brain associated with pain control, while it deactivated another brain region (the thalamus) that regulates sensory information. By deactivating the thalamus, meditation may cause signals about pain to simply fade away.

In addition to relieving pain, there is increasing evidence that meditation and CBT are effective in treating mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression and stress. One study, published in the British Medical Journal, found that online mindfulness courses were often just as effective as face-to-face meetings with a therapist.

You can sample a relaxing online pain management meditation at Meditainment.com (click here to see it). The initial course is free.