Mindfulness Changes Pain

I read an interesting passage in ‘Mindfulness’, Ellen Langer’s insightful book on social psychology.

“Patients are often certain that pain is inevitable in a hospital. Caught in such a mindset, they assume that, without the help of medication, pain cannot be controlled. In our experiment, we tried to learn whether people could control their experience of pain by putting it in a different, more optimistic context.

Patients who were about to undergo major surgery were taught to imagine themselves in one of two situations: playing football or preparing for a dinner party. In the midst of a rough skirmish on the football field, bruises are hardly noticed. Similarly, cutting oneself while rushing to prepare dinner for ten people who will be arriving any minute might also be something one would hardly notice. In contrast, a paper cut suffered whilst reading a dull magazine article quickly becomes the focus of attention. Through examples of this sort, participants in the study were taught that, rather than being inevitable, much pain we experience appears to be context-dependent.

Hospital staff, unaware of our hypothesis, monitored the use of medication and the length of stay for the participating patients in the experimental group and in the control groups. Those patients who were taught to reinterpret the hospital experience in nonthreatening ways took fewer pain relievers and sedatives and tended to leave the hospital sooner than the untrained patients. The same hospital experience seen through psychologically different eyes is not the same experience, and the difference could be measured in lower doses of medication and quicker recoveries. This reappraisal technique effectively loosened the hospital mindset and, by showing that pain was not a certainty, gave the participants more control over their convalescence.”

This experiment clearly demonstrates that changing our mindset can change our experience of pain!