Reducing chronic pain through mindfulness
Researchers at the UTS Mindfulness Integrated Therapies Research Clinic offer non-invasive relief from chronic pain. Mindfulness has the potential to help patients unlearn some of the complex behavioural, cognitive and neural aspects to chronic pain.
Participants reported not only a reduction in terms of pain severity and pain anxiety, but also a reduction in terms of depression, anxiety and stress.
Alice Shires, leader of the UTS Mindfulness Integrated Therapies Research Clinic
Can you talk me through your study?
Our pilot study was designed to test out a component of a larger mindfulness therapy called Mindfulness Integrated Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (MiCBT), which was developed by my co-author on the study Bruno Cayoun and has been around for almost a decade. The component of MiCBT that we were interested in, called the MIET (Mindfulness-Based Interoceptive Exposure Task), sounds complicated, but is really very simple.
It involves a regular 30-second experiential task that asks the participant to observe the pain sensations within their body in a way we call ‘applied equanimity’. So, focusing on the pain in an objective, non-reactive way using particular descriptors. We wanted to test whether the MIET would reduce the pain experience and we got some very good outcomes.
So, by simply observing their pain, participants reported less chronic pain over a period of time?
Yes, participants reported not only a reduction in terms of pain severity and pain anxiety, but also a reduction in terms of depression, anxiety and stress. Now, this was a pilot study and there was no control group, but still, these are significant results. We are now working on two further studies, but this time they will be randomised and controlled. We want to see if we can replicate these results, and if there is an impact of the MIET that’s over and above other approaches to pain management.
How does it differ from other approaches?
One of the differences between MIET and other common forms of pain reduction therapy is that we are not using distraction. You pay full attention right to the very centre of the experience.
What we tend to do when we are in pain is to make judgements about it. We tend to catastrophise. But in this case, we’re simply observing it using what we call the “four characteristics”. These are what Buddhists call the true nature of experience, meaning temperature (whether something is hot or cold); mass (whether it’s light or heavy); cohesiveness (whether it’s tight or loose); and movement (whether it’s moving or still).
When one observes the experience of pain in these objective ways, it seems to enable them to alter their experience to some extent. They’re perhaps unlearning the learned, aversive response.
Why do you think this field of research is important?
Pain is a huge problem. What we tend to see is that many people move from acute pain, perhaps as a result of injury, into chronic pain disorders, becoming dependent on lots of different medications. Equally, there’s an increasing amount of evidence to show that pain is a complicated phenomenon with behavioural, cognitive and neural aspects contributing to the learning of pain. So, developing psychological techniques that might undo some of that learning might be useful either on their own or as a way of supplementing standard treatments.
Do you suffer from chronic pain?
Alice Shires and her team are looking for participants for their research so contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested in being involved or want to learn more about the mindfulness integrated CBT treatment offered in the MTRC.