persistent pain

Being mindful about mindfulness

I’m generally a supporter of mindfulness practice. It’s been a great discipline for me as I deal with everyday life and everything. I don’t admit to being incredibly disciplined about “making time for meditation” every day – that is, I don’t sit down and do the whole thing at a set time each day – but I do dip in and out of mindfulness throughout my day. While I’m brushing my teeth, slurping on a coffee, driving, sitting in the sun, looking at the leaves on the trees, cuddling my Sheba-dog I’ll bring myself to the present moment and take a couple of minutes to be fully present. Oddly enough I don’t do this nearly as often when I’m cold (like this morning when it’s about 8 degrees in my office!), or when I’m eating parsnip (ewwwww!), or waiting to see a dentist. Or perhaps that’s not odd at all, because I wonder if we have a skewed view on mindfulness and what it’s about.

My reason for writing this post comes from reading Anhever, Haller, Barth, Lauche, Dobos & Cramer (2017) recent review of mindfulness-based stress reduction for treating low back pain. In it, they found “MBSR was associated with short-term improvements in pain intensity (4 RCTs; mean difference [MD], −0.96 point on a numerical rating scale [95% CI, −1.64 to −0.34 point]; standardized mean difference [SMD], −0.48 point [CI, −0.82 to −0.14 point]) and physical functioning (2 RCTs; MD, 2.50 [CI, 0.90 to 4.10 point]; SMD, 0.25 [CI, 0.09 to 0.41 point]) that were not sustained in the long term.” There were only seven RCTs included in the study, with a total of only 864 participants, and many of the studies had no active control groups, so my interpretation is that there are flaws in many of the studies examining MBSR, and that it’s difficult to draw any conclusions, let alone strong conclusions.

Where do we go wrong with mindfulness? The first point about the studies included in Anhever and colleagues paper is that there is a difference between mindfulness in general and mindfulness based stress reduction – and although the difference may be minimal, it’s nevertheless worth understanding. MBSR is a full programme that includes mindfulness as one element (Kabat-Zinn, 1982). Mindfulness is a key component, yes, but the programmes include other elements.  The second point is that perhaps we’re assuming mindfulness to be something that it isn’t –  I suspect, from reading numerous articles in both the popular media and research papers, that mindfulness is being applied as another form of relaxation.

Relaxation training was introduced as part of a behavioural approach to managing stress. In pain management it’s been part of programmes since the 1970’s, particularly using forms of progressive muscle relaxation (See Dawn & Seers, 1998). The intention is to provide an experience that is incompatible with tension, and to develop the capability to down-regulate the body and mind to mitigate the stress response that is so often part of persistent pain.

Relaxation training can take many forms, and breath control is a common component. I use it often for myself, and when working with clients – I’m aiming to show people that although they may not be able to control heart rate or blood pressure, they can control breath and muscle tension. It’s useful especially as part of sleep management.

The thing with relaxation training is it’s entire purpose is to help downregulate an upregulated nervous system. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is not.

What is mindfulness about if it’s not about relaxation? Well, mindfulness has been defined in many different ways, but the one I especially like is by Kabat-Zinn (1990) “a process of bringing a certain quality of attention to moment-by-moment experience”.  This definition can be further unpacked by examining its components: “Mindfulness begins by bringing awareness to current experience—observing and attending to the changing field of thoughts, feelings, and sensations from moment to moment—by regulating the focus of attention.” (italics are mine) –  this quote is from Bishop, Lau, Shapiro and colleagues (2004) and is from a paper looking at defining mindfulness in an operational way (so we can be aware of what it means in practice, or as we teach others). These authors go on to say that this process leads to a feeling of being very alert to what is occurring in the here and now. I like to remind people that it’s about being here rather than remembering or anticipating what might.

So at least one part of mindfulness is learning how to attend to what YOU want to attend to, rather than being dragged back to memories, or forward to predictions, or to experiences or moments that you don’t want to notice at that moment.  The definition also points to noticing and experiencing what is happening, rather than thoughts or ruminations about what you’re experiencing. For people living with persistent pain, I think this is an invaluable tool for dealing with the interruptive effects of pain on attention.

A second aspect of mindfulness is an attitude – one of curiosity. When being mindful, you’re not trying to produce any particular state, instead you’re being curious about what you are experiencing, whether it’s something you’d ordinarily want to experience – or not. This approach to experience is really similar to what we’re aiming for in persistent pain management – acknowledging and being willing to experience what is, rather than attempting to avoid that experience, or quickly change it to something more palatable.

Now this aspect of mindfulness is often brought to bear on new and pleasant experiences – sometimes people are asked to mindfully eat a raisin, or mindfully examine a ballpoint pen (one of my favourites). But it’s also just as valid to bring this attitude to bear on less than pleasant experiences like my cold fingers and legs (it’s cold in my office this morning). Or to pain and where it is – and where it isn’t.

So I wonder if part of our approach to using mindfulness in pain management is incorrect. If we’re intending people to come away from mindfulness feeling relaxed and calm, perhaps we’re doing it wrong. If we think people should feel better after mindfulness, again, perhaps we’re doing it wrong. Sometimes, yes, these are the effects we’ll have. Other times, not so much. What we will always develop, over time, however, is better ability to focus attention where we want it to go, and more openness to being present to what is rather than struggling against it. And I think those are incredibly valuable tools in life, not just persistent pain management. And perhaps, just perhaps, if we began viewing our use of mindfulness in these ways, the outcomes from RCTs of mindfulness might show more of what it can do.


Anheyer, D., Haller, H., Barth, J., Lauche, R., Dobos, G., & Cramer, H. (2017). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for treating low back pain: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Annals of Internal Medicine, 1-9. doi:10.7326/M16-1997

Dawn, Carroll, and Kate Seers. “Relaxation for the relief of chronic pain: a systematic review.” Journal of advanced nursing 27.3 (1998): 476-487.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your mind to face stress, pain and illness. New York:Dell.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1982). An outpatient program in behavioral medicine for chronic pain patients based on the practice of mindfulness meditation: Theoretical considerations and preliminary results. General hospital psychiatry, 4(1), 33-47. doi: