How does mindfulness reduce the experience of pain? One theory has it that focusing mindfully on present-moment sensory experience reduces the influence of held beliefs. For example, past experiences with pain shape expectations about what pain will be like in the future.
Using a pain conditioning experiment, Vencatachellum et al. [European Journal of Pain] tested the effect of inducing mindfulness compared to pain-suppression strategies on pain expectations.
The researchers enrolled 68 healthy meditation-naive participants (50% female; average age=27 years) from three European countries in a laboratory study. All participants first underwent sensory conditioning that paired a computer-presented visual cue with a heat stimulus delivered a few seconds later to their forearm. The heat stimulus was calibrated to each participant to induce low, moderate, or high levels of heat-induced pain.
Color cues were consistently paired with subsequent pain stimuli so that the colors became associated with an expected degree of pain. As such, participants now learned what to expect. Participants rated their anxiety and pain intensity and unpleasantness on each trial.
After the cue conditioning, participants were randomly assigned to receive 10 minutes of audio training in either mindfully attending to pain or suppressing pain. Participants were then exposed to the previously conditioned color cues along with a novel color cue, each followed by a moderate pain stimulus. The novel color was added because it was not conditioned with pain and so served as comparison to the conditioned colors. Participants again rated their anxiety and pain.
The researchers then assessed whether the moderate pain stimulus was rated as more painful following the high-pain color cue, or less painful following the low-pain color cue than after the unconditioned color cue.
Results showed that after the low-pain cue, the suppression group judged the moderate pain stimulus as less-than-moderate. The mindfulness group judged it, accurately, as moderate. No group difference was found for judgements about the high-pain cue.
The study findings offered partial support for a theory proposing that mindfulness reduces the influence of learned expectancies on future pain judgments, but only when expectancies signal a lower level of pain. The study is limited by the brevity of its mindfulness induction and the absence of a control group instructed merely to rest during the pain task.
Vencatachellum, S., Meulen, M. van der, Ryckeghem, D. M. L. V., Damme, S. V., & Vögele, C. (2021). Brief mindfulness training can mitigate the influence of prior expectations on pain perception. European Journal of Pain.
Link to study