Your Mind Has the Power to Relieve Pain as Much as MorphineI have practiced  Bikram yoga for over 5 years.  A class is 90 minutes of yoga in a room heated to 110 degrees with 40% humidity.  It’s insanely hot and muggy.  Today, the yoga teacher was prepping a first timer prior to entering the room. He instructed her repeatedly to not leave the room during class.  She replied “It’s OK.  I’ve given birth twice.” With that attitude, I knew that she’d be fine because the practice is as much of a mental challenge, if not more so than a physical one.  In fact, that’s probably why I like it so much.

A class is uncomfortable.  It’s supposed to be. The real challenge is in accepting the heat and humidity and even using it to my benefit.  To struggle against the conditions and focus on the discomfort would only make my experience more uncomfortable and difficult.  I know this from experience as I’ve done it more times than I care to admit.   Learning to accept discomfort in the hot room, is great practice for life outside of the room.

I also regularly participate in acupuncture and am happy to say that I can’t feel the needles once in place – unless I move.  So, I do my best impersonation of a statue while on a table for about an hour.   When I move, small electrical shocks where the needles are inserted ignite. Even if my nose itches like crazy or my butt falls asleep, I resist movement and try to experience the feeling literally for what it is: a physical sensation, nothing more, nothing less.  My brain’s interpretation of that sensation defines it as an itch or as uncomfortable or whatever. It’s interesting to explore an itch without automatically, unconsciously scratching it.  What if my brain doesn’t define it as something that needs to be scratched? It becomes just a physical experience.

The same mindset applies to the yoga.  It’s my interpretation of the conditions that make them bearable or not.  A class becomes a learning, strengthening exploration of the various physical and mental feelings that show up due to the extreme heat.  Instead of being compelled to do something to seek relief, I challenge myself to just be with the awareness of the feelings.

It’s my interpretation of the conditions that make them bearable or not.  A class becomes a learning, strengthening exploration of the various physical and mental feelings that show up due to the extreme heat.  Instead of being compelled to do something to seek relief, I challenge myself to just be with the awareness of the feelings.

In these examples, I am using my mind to interpret and influence my physical experience.  You also do this every day whether you are conscious of it or not.  To mindfully alter the way in which physical sensations are perceived by the mind in this way is proving highly successful in pain management.

In his article in The Wall Street Journal, Thinking Away The Pain, Jonah Lehrer writes:

New therapeutic approaches don’t target body parts or nerves close to the source of the problem. They don’t involve highly technical surgeries or expensive new drugs. Instead, they focus on the mind, on altering the ways in which we perceive the pain itself.

Lehrer cites a study conducted by Wake Forest University in which participants, after only a few days of meditation training, reduced the unpleasantness of their pain by 57%. That’s roughly the equivalent of morphine.  He also tells of studies at Duke University in which cognitive behavioral therapy, biofeedback, and hypnosis effectively reduced chronic lower back pain in participants.

This same technique works for uncomfortable situations in life, I’ve found.  Any event becomes whatever my brain interprets and defines it to be.  Now, that is some real mind power!

Now, that is some real mind power!

image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kozumel/

17 Comments

  1. Ande Waggener Reply

    Great post, Debbie. And you’re so right that this acceptance and shift in perception carries into all parts of life. I’ve been working on shifting beliefs lately, and I ask myself often, “What would I have to believe in order to feel the way I feel right now?” The belief underlying my reaction or emotion almost always pops right up, and then I can consciously changes it, which immediately transforms the situation and how I feel.

    Love the information about the Bikram yoga and the way you’ve learned to accept and look past the discomfort. Thanks!

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      I like your question. It brings awareness into the present and makes you look at the underlying thinking behind what you believe now and what you want to shift to.

      It was quite a revelation to me a couple of years ago to realize that my reality is shaped by my beliefs. All those things I just took to be givens, were, in fact, not. It was also very subsequently empowering to realize that I could choose which beliefs in which I really wanted to invest.

  2. Reminds me of when I was in paratrooper training in Japan

    There was a saying, “We don’t Mind and you don’t Matter”

    We have more control than we realize as long as we use it

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Chet, hi! and thank you for commenting. Is that what you meant to say? If so, I don’t understand.

      I can imagine that being a paratrooper offered many instances where you had to over ride the bodily sensations and mental alarms…and just do what you had to do…like jumping out of a plane. You were employing this mind over matter technique whether you knew it or not! Even though I have gotten pretty good as this mind thing, you would still have to push me out of the plane!

  3. It is quite extraordinary how much perception dictates the boundaries of sensation, both positive and negative. I’m glad if perceptual control (through meditation) works for low back pain. That’s increasing both because obesity rates are up, and because people are active in riskier ways at more advanced ages than they were in previous generations. Surgery and meds can be very effective, but as you say, it’s expensive and complicated.

    I haven’t tried any of the “hot” yoga styles, but I know a lot of athletes practice them to improve performance. It also burns a lot more calories than the “cold” styles. I just do the old basic Hatha. I did grow up in Iowa and Missouri, however. Every summer runs into the 100s, with 40-65% humidity, and we didn’t have air conditioning. No school, so we played until passing out. Lots of running, biking and swimming. If you sat down in shorts, you would stick to the floor or furniture. Maybe I have had a similar experience after all – at least of that environment.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Now that you got me thinking about it, the yoga is probably not too different from going to the beach as a kid in the summer. We had a pop-up camper (remember those?) and, a few fans to move around the hot air. It is funny how what is considered a challenge in our pampered lives today was just part of the norm back then, huh?

      Just a funny aside….at the campgrounds they used to have a truck go through the camp ground spraying DDT to kill the mosquitos. We used to ride behind the truck, in the DDT cloud chasing it. Great!

  4. Hi, Debbie

    This is fascinating. I’ve just been reading (and writing) about ‘phantom limb’ pain; apparently, if a patient sits in front of a mirror so that a missing arm or leg appears to be there again, this can relieve the common symptom of feeling pain or discomfort in an amputated limb. On the face of it, a simple strategy, but very mysterious in its implications once you start thinking about it.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Thanks for your comment. I find this completely amazing. In this case, the visual stimuli, the mirror image, that the brain receives tricks it and causes it to actually make physical changes as if their was a limb. Have you read Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself? It covers this thoroughly and interestingly. In fact, the whole book is great. It was the first book I read about the brain. It gave me so much hope and was my Bible.

  5. Penn Martin Reply

    Hi Debbie,

    That’s great wisdom. Thanks for laying it down, particularly real in that it is grounded out in your actual experience. Cool, you’re becoming a yogini (female yogi), not just from practicing yoga, but in this attitude of detachment from experience at the level of transcendence, awareness of sensation.

    I believe what Chet was communicating above was that as paratroopers, their saying “We don’t Mind and you don’t Matter” was reinforcing the affirmation of mind over matter by stating that from the perspective of the person using the affirmation, he doesn’t mind what happens, and it doesn’t matter to him at all, thereby detaching himself from the stimulus and controlling his response.

    Cheers, Penn

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Oh, now I understand. Makes more sense to me. See, it is all in the perspective, huh? Thanks for the clarification and the kind words. “If you don’t mind, then it doesn’t matter”works too.

      The crazy, cat yogini, eh!? I like it! Luv ya! 🙂

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  7. I totally feel what you say, Debbie 🙂

    {The same philosophy applies to yoga. It is my interpretation of the conditions that make them bearable or not. }

    Indee!
    When I first met with Yoga, I was so uncomfortabale with it that it took years for me to really enjoy *that* beautiful art!

    Now I am so enjoying stretching my body and relief the stresses and burdens inside, right after I don’t see it as exercise or a menthod to get fit any more. I just enjoy the process of making my body comfortable and mind peaceful 🙂

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Sandy, good for you for sticking with it and for finding the benefit and beauty in yoga. I can totally relate. At first, for me it was a physical way to get fit and shape my body more. My practice has evolved. I went from being very aware of otherpeople in the room with almost a competitive eye to not even being aware of them. It is very individualistic now. Just me and the mirror…and the instructors’ voice. They say at yoga “a herd of elephants could walk through the room, and it would not distract you.” I am almost there, but I would still have to take a look at a her of elephants! 🙂

  8. Stephen Gemmell Reply

    Hi Debbie, and thanks for another fascinating post. I agree with you absolutely about the (potential) power of the mind. I guess the reverse of this is what creates a hypochondriac in whose mind the problem (either physical or emotional pain) actually exists? Given the natural Scottish climate of cold, wind and rain, I can only imagine what 110 degrees with 40% humidity must be like 😉 Take care, Stephen

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Hi Stephen! I guess the hypochondriac is the reverse as you say. I wonder (out loud), are their there pains/symptoms any less real even if they are exacerbated by their minds? If real physical sensation can be effectively reduced as much as morphine by thoughts, can physical sensation be created by thoughts? Hmmmmm…interesting.

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