The most common area of generalized pain is the back; from there, the pain can radiate upward toward the neck and shoulder regions. Common physical causes of back pain range from injury to the arthritic effects of age.
However, less well-known causes of back pain are the effects of thoughts, feelings, emotions what the correlation is between those causes and the pain. When taking into consideration these more subjective qualities, the science begins to shift from the definitive to the abstract.
Buddhism has always taken into account the difference between mind, brain and consciousness. It is a philosophy of life – rather than a religion – that has been practiced for roughly 2.5 millennia, (cit, f.n). It has only recently become more mainstream and more widely practiced in the Western world.
For those raised in the Western philosophy of thinking, a myriad of questions arise that must be addressed and defined first. Then we can begin to learn how the mind can help with pain in general, and back pain more specifically. Here are the questions that we will attempt to unpack:
- What is “the mind”?
- Is “the mind” different than the brain?
- What is pain?
- What role does the brain play in the perception of pain?
- What role does the mind play in the perception of pain?
- Can the effect of the mind on pain be scientifically studied?
Though these questions may seem a bit muddy, answering them will lay the groundwork for a better understanding of the topic at hand. Once a foundation for the idea of “mind over matter” has been defined, we can move forward with more insights into the self and come out armed with exercises that will help wield the mind to help with back pain and even lessen the effects of stress – who wouldn’t want that?
Mind vs. Brain
The mind is where our feelings, emotions, thoughts, and dreams take shape; it is also where darker feelings and emotions arise such as jealousy and anger.
The mind can cause both feelings of happiness AND dis-ease (notice: we do not speak of disease as in sickness) but it is also a muscle of sorts that must be exercised and trained to increase happiness and ease.
The mind, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is:
- The element, or complex of elements, in an individual that feels, perceives, thinks, wills, and especially reasons.
- The conscious mental events and capabilities in an organism
- The organized conscious and unconscious adaptive mental activity of an organism
In science, as in Buddhism, the brain is a part of our anatomy. It is present in the physical world, can be seen, studied, weighed, measured; it is tangible. It is the powerhouse of the body, the command center, it tells us what to do and when – whether we consciously tell it to or not. It keeps the body moving…literally.
The brain, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is:
- The portion of the vertebrate central nervous system enclosed in the skull and continuous with the spinal cord through the foramen magnum that is composed of neurons and supporting and nutritive structures and that integrates sensory information from inside and outside the body in controlling autonomic function (such as heartbeat and respiration), in coordinating and directive correlated motor responses, and in the process of learning.
With these working definitions, it is now possible to decide if the mind and the brain are the same and whether they function in the same capacity when pain is involved.
What is Pain and How is it Perceived?
This seems to be a relatively straight-forward question at first; pain is the body’s response to a physical ailment or injury of some kind. It is the brain’s way of conveying that something is amiss and send signals from the site of discomfort to the spinal cord, then on to the brain where the sensation is the officially registered as pain.
Next, the brain sends out pain-reducing chemicals, as well as triggering any other responses the body may need.
The whole process is automatic, done without any conscious effort on our part. Outwardly, and on a conscious, deliberate level, one might discontinue the action that caused the pain, seek medical attention and/or take some type of medication to alleviate the discomfort.
So, what is the role of the mind in the perception of pain? Now that we have a working knowledge of the differences in the mind and the brain, can it be discerned that the mind is involved in the perception of pain at all? When one says, “I feel pain”, it is usually referred to in the physical sense, not the idea that the mind can perpetuate or even be the cause of pain is an extraordinary concept.
“What you think, determines how you feel, which determines what you do.”
This is a favorite mantra of Weight Watchers and it is certainly apropos.
Our thoughts have created our version of reality; one person may not interpret the same situation exactly like another. These thoughts play an active role in shaping our emotions and based on these emotions we act, or react, in any number of ways.
When the thoughts and feelings of the mind dictate how the body feels, and to some degree what the body does, pain then, occurs when the mind and body are out of balance. It is the body’s way of telling the mind that something is in need of attention and that awareness needs to be brought to the suffering itself as well as its cause.
Anxiety, depression, and tension are all known to cause physical pain and for many, this pain can appear in the back, neck and shoulders. It may be difficult to pinpoint the exact area of the pain; back, neck and shoulder ailments like these tend to be generalized – or encompassing the entire back.
It is also possible to be unaware of the cause of an anxiety attack or a bout of depression, in these situations back pain may be the result of unattended emotions or even unknown triggers.
For example: at least a couple times a year depression sets in for me and it always takes a beat before I realize it’s because it is the anniversary of a loved one’s passing.
An alternative reason the mind can cause pain is to distract. As a defense mechanism, the body may signal a source of pain to keep one’s mind away from difficult thoughts, feelings or emotions. All the more reason to be aware of one’s body.
In all of these cases, once it is acknowledged that there are some unattended mental needs deliberate actions may be taken to ease the mind which will decrease or eliminate the pain. The benefit of this type of awareness is: that should similar pain arise, it may be more quickly alleviated with a little TLC and introspection.
So, no we’ve come full circle to the main concept of this article:
How Can the Mind Help with Back Pain?
The first, and most important, thing is that during any work with the mind always remember to do so objectively and with an open curiosity. It does one no good to judge one’s thoughts and feelings, this will only add to the suffering. Some good questions to ask yourself are:
- When did the pain begin?
- Were there other stressors or triggered occurring in your life when the pain began?
Once these details are discerned it is possible to begin working on them as the source of the pain. Enter mindfulness (cit, f.n) – this author’s working definition of mindfulness is: allowing the mind to focus entirely on the right here and right now, without judgment, without expectation, without requirements.
How Does One Do This?
One of the most basic practices is focusing on the breath. Guided meditations, as well as a list of resources, will be provided at the end of this article; it is often easier to learn to focus if one has some direction at first.
- Begin by sitting in a comfortable, but erect, position (I usually choose to sit cross-legged on the floor with my hands folded in my lap). This may be done with the eyes opened or closed although I prefer closed to decrease the distraction of external stimuli.
- Once comfortable, take a deep breath in through your nose; as you inhale notice how the air feels as it fills your nostrils – is it hot or cold?
- Now follow the breath as it fills your airway and down into your lungs. Do you notice a feeling of energy or space as your body receives all that oxygen.
- As you exhale contemplate the breath in reverse.
If, at any time during this short practice, your mind wanders – and it will – just notice that but don’t follow any one thought right now. Rest assured all of those fleeting thoughts and worries, and to-dos will still be there when you are done. A way to keep score and to learn how to not make the mind wander as much, there is also a device called “The Muse”, which is a great meditation tool. I wrote my 300-day experience using The Muse, in case you want to read it.
Remember, there is no use in judging yourself for what will inevitably happen and sometimes these fleeting thoughts may be of feelings and emotions you didn’t even know were going through your mind. They may even be difficult to process, it’s ok, just notice and sit with the breath.
When you have done this maybe three to five times, slowly open your eyes – assuming they were closed – and assess how your body feels, what is going through your mind? Practicing this short exercise will not only lead to better posture (less back pain), but it will also lead to a sense of calm and understanding of self that will help with back pain in just the first sitting.
When it is the mind that causes pain, it is the mind that must combat it. Being in the present moment and being willing to explore with curiosity and sit with understanding will ease back, neck, shoulder and many other ailments.
If you’re still not sure…what do you have to lose by trying? At the very least you’ll feel energized by all the oxygen your blood is getting and sending around your body!
https://palousemindfulness.com/ – FREE Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course put together by the leading mindfulness professor Jon Kabat-Zinn
bemindful.com – This is a short mindfulness course that can be purchased for around $30
Living Pain-Free – a book by Doreen Virtue and Robert Reeves, N.D.
Udemy.com – Online classes in mindfulness, ranging in price depending on the topic and length
Futurelearn.com – Online classes in mindfulness, some can be FREE but to get a certificate of completion will cost a varying amount
Buddha’s Brain – a book by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.