A growing body of research suggests that mindfulness meditation—which involves paying attention to what you’re feeling in the present moment—can help relieve pain, whether it’s acute (like a kitchen burn or a stubbed toe) or chronic (think long-lasting back pain.)
One way to practice mindfulness is to actually focus in on the different sensations of pain, without reacting to it as something awful and anguishing, says Eric Garland, PhD, director of the Center on Mindfulness and Integrative Health Intervention Development at the University of Utah.
“We know from neuroscience that parts of the brain involved with emotional pain and negative emotions overlap with brain regions that process physical pain,” says Garland. “But by paying attention to the pure sensory aspects of your pain—like sensations of heat, tightness, or tingling—it may remove that emotional overlay and make it easier to cope with those feelings you’re experiencing.”
It may seem counterintuitive, Garland adds, but it’s worked in several clinical trials. “The more patients learn to focus on their pain sensations, the greater pain relief they achieve,” he says. “Mindfulness is helping people sense their bodies more accurately and be more in touch with what’s going on, without those negative emotions.”