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How Compassion Relieves Chronic Pain

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If you suffer from chronic pain, and perhaps the angry emotions that hurting all the time can lead to, there’s a drug-free treatment that takes only 15 minutes a day and can bring real relief.

It’s called compassion meditation. It’s not like “regular” meditation. Rather than letting your mind wander, you actively direct your thoughts—toward kindness and altruism. Don’t believe this could relieve your pain? Rigorous scientific studies have found that it can—and it even may help you live longer.

THE SCIENCE OF KINDNESS

At the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University School of Medicine, we study compassion and altruistic behavior and their health effects. Here’s what recent research at our center and other institutions has found…

  • Chronic pain—and anger. Among people with chronic pain, a nine-week compassion meditation program at Stanford University led to significantly reduced pain severity and greater pain acceptance by the end of the program, according to a study published in Journal of Compassionate Health Care. One way it helped was that it reduced levels of anger, based on self-evaluations of the patients. Anger has been shown to be an important predictor of chronic pain symptoms, and cultivating compassion has been shown to positively influence how we process emotions, reducing the tendency toward negativity, including anger.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. In a study at the Veterans Administration’s Puget Sound Health Care System in Seattle, published in Journal of Traumatic Stress, researchers found that when veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) practiced loving-kindness meditation (a form of compassion meditation) for 12 weeks, they experienced a reduction in PTSD symptoms and depression. The benefits were still evident three months later.
  • Migraines. A study from University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, published in Pain Management Nursing, found that migraine sufferers who learned loving-kindness meditation in a single session experienced a 33% decrease in pain and a 43% reduction in emotional tension.
  • Longevity. While there’s certainly no conclusive evidence that learning to be compassionate to yourself and to others will help you live longer, there are intriguing clues that it might. The connection: Telomeres, which are “caps” on the tips of each strand of DNA on your chromosomes. A study from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, found that people experienced in practicing loving-kindness meditation have longer telomeres, which are associated with greater longevity.

HOW TO PRACTICE COMPASSION MEDITATION

With roots in Buddhist philosophy, compassion meditation aims to strengthen feelings of compassion and empathy toward yourself and other people—to generate feelings of kindness toward yourself and others. It’s different from the well-known “mindfulness” meditation, which is mostly focused on calming the mind and increasing awareness. In compassion meditation, rather than letting your thoughts come and go without judgment, you focus your attention in specific ways as you silently repeat benevolent phrases or visualize kind wishes.

The goal is to express your intention to move from judgment or dislike to caring, compassion, acceptance and understanding. Compassion meditation involves bringing to mind people you know and love, feeling their love and spreading caring feelings toward strangers or even people you find challenging.

It isn’t hard to do. To do it, sit quietly, close your eyes, breathe gently and silently repeat a phrase designed to evoke a feeling of goodwill toward yourself, such as “May I be happy, healthy and strong.” Then, extend the good wishes to someone you feel thankful for, then to someone you’re indifferent to, then to someone you find challenging and finally to the world at large.

Practicing loving-kindness or compassion meditation is a way to stretch the “muscles” of kindness, caring and empathy toward everyone and to remember our common humanity. The key is to give your “compassion muscles” a regular workout by practicing regularly, just as you might any other skill. Doing so will help you cultivate more loving relationships, greater happiness and better health…and could noticeably reduce your chronic pain.

Ready to do it now? You can use my YouTube video below, which runs for less than 15 minutes. Once you know it by heart, you can do it in your own time—and voice. To get started, just click on the video below, close your eyes and follow the prompts…

 

To learn more about meditation, see Bottom Line’s “Skeptics Guide to Meditation.”

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Source: Emma Seppälä, PhD, science director, Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, Stanford University, California, and author of The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success. Date: February 23, 2017 Publication: Bottom Line Health
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