A few months ago, I was lucky enough to be asked by Headspace to trial and review their new Pain Management pack.
Meditation, of the spiritual or mindfulness sort, is something that is constantly recommended to me by people who like to have an opinion on how I should manage my chronic illnesses, but also by a few actual professionals(!) in terms of stress management.
I’ve dabbled in the past, and I didn’t find it all that helpful. I hated being ‘brought back into my body’, when that was what was causing all my problems in the first place. I’m also not the most ‘sit there and be with myself’ kinda person. I did use it on and off for about a year, but in the end felt that it just wasn’t for me.
That being said, I was excited to be able to try this out, especially because I feel that the needs of people with pain are different from those without, and was curious what the differences would be.
This pack starts off as all the others do, with a video from Headspace founder, Andy, explaining what the next 30 days would entail. As I expected, it’s not being sold as a miraculous cure to pain (always run away from anyone claiming they have one as fast as your little legs can take you). Instead, it aims to help us take some time to learn more about our own unique experience of pain, and help us challenge the ways we perceive it. Vitally, he mentioned the importance of approaching this series with an open mind, free from expectation.
I’m glad that the beginning of the pack goes over mindfulness fundamentals, as I find them really hard to get to grips with. One of the reasons I enjoyed Headspace is that there’s an acceptance that our minds were going to wander. Those thoughts are encouraged, and set free, made part of the meditation in a way that didn’t make you feel like you were failing because you can’t just sit and focus on your breath for ten minutes at a time.
I was initially a bit disappointed that he asked us to do the full body scan within the first few minutes, but then he asked us to literally focus on the pain (like I can pick one place!), and I have to admit, I was intrigued. My brain didn’t know where to go and I felt like I was in a funny dance, running my mind across my body, realising that there is no longer a place where I don’t experience pain (woo). But I was thinking about the pain in a high level way, instead of sitting and experiencing it.
The first key concept we explore in the pack is resistance. Andy explained that when we experience pain, it’s totally natural to want to fight it. He argues that the process of resisting pain can actually intensify it: by mentally applying resistance to try and fight our pain, we increase tension in the body, which can then make our experience of pain worse.
I know that whenever I allow myself to think about how I feel, everything becomes so much worse. Which, I suppose is why I generally am pushing through so much, constantly ‘doing’ something so I never have to be alone with my pain. Fully ‘taking time off’ is never an option for me, as I totally crash for weeks on end – so finding a lower level that I can keep up consistently is incredibly important.
So, if no matter what we do, pain is going to be there anyway (sad, but true), instead of fighting it, should we stop resisting, and instead try and step out of the way? It’s not that the pain will just disappear or pass by, but if we can learn some skills to help us step out of our usual cycles and current ways of experiencing pain, we can witness the sensations without feeling them as strongly.
By sitting and scanning my body for pain, but not actually focussing on it, I could accept and note that the pain was there, and then start to train my brain to move on and think about something else. I think, if practiced in the long-term (and aside from external distraction of work or Netflix), it could be a very helpful skill to have.
Over the course of the month that I tried Headspace, I learned a lot about how I view my pain, and myself as an extension of that. It encouraged me to ask myself questions, and to think deeper about something that’s so prevalent in my life. I think, in that sense, it served its purpose. But at the end of the day, meditation, in any form, just doesn’t seem to be quite right for me. I find singing, reading, or something that’s more ‘active’ for me to engage in, to be much better for my brain and brings me much more joy.