Mindfulness As A Way to Reduce Pain and Stress
By Dr. Michael Dworkind, Medical Director and Co-founder of Santé Cannabis.
For more than two months now, Canadians have been living with the stress of COVID-19, and its disruptive impact on our daily routine. A recent survey by Mental Health Research Canada shows people across the country reporting higher levels of stress, alcohol consumption and greater interpersonal conflict, especially in homes with children under 18.
A few weeks ago, I led a support group for Santé Cannabis patients where we explored the potential for combining mindfulness meditation, yoga, exercise and medical cannabis as an approach to managing stress and anxiety. Physiological studies have shown how mindfulness can reduce the blood pressure, slow down the heart and other mechanisms of fight or flight associated with states of anxiety.
More than 20 years ago, I had the opportunity to start learning about the practice of Buddhist meditation called Vipassana. My interest in the subject led me to complete a nine day silent retreat with well-known teachers of the mind-body approach to healing, including Jack Kornfield, a pioneer in the domain. Over the years, I would take shorter retreats, and would return with a deeper commitment to my practice.
“Practice here means a daily commitment to sitting from 20-30 minutes in a quiet and safe surrounding to let go of tension and find deep relaxation.”
– Dr. Michael Dworkind
THE FOCUS ON BREATHING
The essential tool of meditation is focusing on one’s breath. Learning to breathe deeply and slowly, to appreciate the inhalation, then the exhalation and allow the tension in the body and mind to dissolve. Anyone can learn to do mindfulness meditation. Like any skill, the ability to meditate improves through daily training and practice. Motivation can be enhanced with the assistance of a skilled and compassionate teacher to help guide you in individual or group settings.
My own learning, apart from the retreats, was facilitated by taking courses like a weekend seminar on clinical hypnosis that used many of the same techniques I had learned in my meditation practice. Most recently, the Department of Family Medicine at the Jewish General Hospital offered a three weekend course called “Mindfulness Based Stress Management” for all staff physicians. The course was based on the groundbreaking work of MIT-trained professor of medicine Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. While the primary aim was to equip doctors with the tools to help reduce stress and improve their personal wellness, there was a hope that these skills would be transferred to patients who want to control anxiety and stress without drugs.
Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s approach was scientifically proven to help patients suffering from chronic pain and other ailments. It eventually became part of the curriculum of Harvard and McGill medical schools and scores of other universities across the continent. Information about Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s approach can be found in the books that he wrote (you can find a list below) and numerous websites devoted to his work.
MINDFULNESS AND THE BODY’S ENDOCANNABINOID SYSTEM (ECS)
When I started learning about medical cannabis and the Endocannabinoid system (ECS) it became clear to me that the combination of mindfulness and cannabinoids had potential. There is in fact a tradition, going back thousands of years in India, of sacred rituals using the cannabis plant for meditative practices that celebrate various occasions or holidays.
Santé Cannabis has previously hosted yoga sessions for patients to emulate this tradition with some success.Yoga can easily be thought of as moving meditation, requiring the proper breathing technique to enhance the experience and its physiological benefits.
Some will extend this to jogging as an example of another moving meditation. In fact, the euphoria that comes with jogging involves the increased endorphins of the opioid regulatory system and the anandamide of the endocannabinoid system. Together, both combine to create the bliss of long runs.
Training is essential to help cope with stress and create optimal outcomes that help reduce anxiety. But it is important to consider individualized approaches to patient preference and ability. For instance, a brisk walk in the woods may have the same impact for some that a jog or yoga may have for others. Finding personalized approaches or activities that are readily available allows people to take control of their choices, something that is critical for success.
THE CHALLENGE OF CHRONIC PAIN
Chronic pain can obviously pose a challenge. If people become focused on their pain, it may be more difficult for them to move or concentrate on daily meditative practice, which in turn can lead into depression or worsening dysfunction .
This usually translates into a worsening tone of the ECS that disrupts its ability to regulate the nervous and endocrine systems. The right balance of a medical cannabis treatment and strain can help reverse this process in the ECS. Treating fibromyalgia and other chronic pain disorders are examples of this. But ECS tone enhancement also requires optimal restful sleep and maintaining physical activity.That is why our approach at Santé Cannabis relies on a holistic focus for each patient’s particular needs.
MINDFULNESS IN THE MIDST OF A PANDEMIC
Mindfulness allows for a personal state of calmness and contentment with a balanced lifestyle, and helps dispel intrusive thoughts and negative belief systems of cognition.
We all get stuck on the negative past experiences or worries about future threats. Letting go of the “what ifs” or “maybes” and instead being present in the moment is an important skill that mindfulness can help achieve. Being focused on the breath, in the here and the now, can help find an individual state of calmness and contentment.
As Thich Nhat Hanh and other teachers have noted, one can achieve real joy through the training.
RESOURCES ON MINDFULNESS
Jon Kabat-Zinn: Full Catastrophe Living, and Wherever You Go There You Are
Thich Nhat Hanh: The Miracle of Mindfulness, and Touching Peace Bring Joy and Happiness With Practice
Jack Kornfield: A Path With Heart, and Insight Meditation Practice
Joseph Goldstein & Jack Kornfield,: Seeking the Heart of Wisdom