A growing body of evidence suggests meditating for just eight weeks can ‘rewire’ the part of the brain related to self-regulation. This helps manage our response to highly emotional stimuli, such as pain. According to Brandon Rennels, a mindfulness meditation teacher at the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute in San Francisco, meditation helps you distinguish between physical discomfort and your emotional response to it. ‘Pain is bad enough, but the anxiety attached to pain can sometimes be even worse,’ he says.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin scanned the brains of novice and expert meditators while applying a pain sensation to their legs. For both groups there was an initial spike in activity in the anterior insula, a part of the brain linked to pain perception. But whereas this remained heightened in the novice meditators, it quickly subsided for the experts. It was as if the expert meditators chose not to engage in the patterns of anxiety that often make pain feel worse.
Rennels recommends meditation beginners start with one minute per day and gradually increase duration, working up to 15 to 20 minutes per day or more. Timing is less important than consistency, so do this whenever you can fit it in. To meditate, sit comfortably in a quiet place, set a timer for your desired duration, and focus on the sensation of breathing. If thoughts arise, notice them, then direct your focus back to your breath.