Using Art and Mindfulness for Pain Control
“Art gives a face to the ambiguity of chronic pain…it gives a visual expression to something that is often elusive.”
– Dr. Steve Feinberg, American Chronic Pain Association
It’s Not Easy Being In Pain
How many of us have pinched a finger in a door, have sprained or broken a limb, have woken up with a back ache or gone to bed with a searing migraine? In some form or another, we can relate! After all, we are human. For some of us, however, either due to injury or illness, the pain never goes away. Day in and day out, pain follows us all the time. It is no surprise then, that pain impacts all aspects of our lives: our sleep, our ability to work or go to school, and even our social connections and family relationships. Using art and mindfulness for pain control can be an extremely helpful tool for our journey. Before we get into that, let’s look at some of the information on chronic pain and illnesses.
Did you know that nearly 8 million people in Canada live with chronic pain (or pain that persists for than three months)?i This means that 1 in 5 people suffer from prolonged pain. 1 in 5 children and youth experience ongoing pain and 1 in 3 adults 65 and older experience chronic pain.ii This can include but is not limited to conditions such as endometriosis, cancer, neurological disorders, fibromyalgia, and Lupus.
Like other chronic illnesses, the chronic pain experience is also impacted by other factors such as poverty, mental health and substance use issues, diversity in gender, race, ethnicity, abilities, and concurrent medical conditions.iii
Some of us have been on the receiving end of a dirty glare when parking in a handicap space, using the elevator meant for those with physical disabilities, or for not offering your seat on a bus to another person with physical disabilities. If only they knew! Because chronic pain is largely invisible, those affected by it can often feel disbelieved, unheard, or dismissed. The stigma builds as individuals are labeled as a “problematic and frequent patients,” mainly because they seek medical treatment regularly. The huge range of symptoms that one can have related to chronic pain makes it difficult to reach a diagnosis and plan for treatment. What begins is a search for effective, compassionate and quality help.
For people living with chronic pain or illness, getting help is not always straightforward.
In my own pain experience and in my work with others with chronic conditions, this seems to be a reoccurring experience. Navigating through our medical system is complex and confusing at times. For patients with chronic pain it’s certainly not a walk in the park!
To be fair, medical professionals do their best to care for their chronic pain patients but struggle to work within a health care system that is not always well-equipped to manage the complex nature of pain. With nearly 900,000 British Columbians without a family doctoriv, the limited amount of time with each patient, and long wait times in walk-in clinics and emergency wards, medical professionals are not always able to spend the time they need or want to with their patients.
As a result of this, chronic pain sufferers are faced with considerable challenges when seeking help?
- The need to review their medical history for every new practitioner. With each new doctor or specialist, patients are asked to review their medical challenges and ‘pain history’ and it is exhausting! If there is no continuity of care or no regular doctor who can follow your progress and prescribe effective treatments, those with chronic pain can be left with feelings of despair and frustration.
- Self-advocacy is hard. With many chronic pain symptoms being invisible, those of us with chronic conditions need to be forthright, consistent, and clear when we articulate our symptoms, and defend our state of being and need for treatment. This not a skill that everyone has and it forces already vulnerable people to go outside of their comfort zone or find an advocate who can be their spokesperson.
- It is hard to get timely help. It can take many months and even years to see specialists, receive surgery, or gain access to public pain programs. In the meantime, patients are left to cope, to seek out alternative forms of treatments. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to look, and see if they are accessible (financially, geographically, or demographically).
- Building a support network is not always easy or within reach. With prolonged reliance on friends and family for practical, financial, physical, emotional, and spiritual support, those with chronic pain may be left with changed or strained relationships. Asking for help regularly or relying on others may not always be an option due to life circumstances. Feelings of loneliness and of being a burden often weigh heavily on those with prolonged pain.
How Do We Address These Issues and Improve Quality of Life?
How many times have you heard, “You’re going to have to learn how to live with your pain?” We groan, yes, but it’s true. There is no magic wand, so how do we do this? The chronic pain experience is riddled with complexities; because it has both physiological and psychological components, taking a holistic approach in tackling chronic pain is the most effective treatment plan in retraining our body and brain. For a good discussion of the importance of a multi-disciplinary approach to pain management, check out this video.
When used together, interventions such as pain medication, surgical procedures, counselling, body work (occupational therapy, physiotherapy, massage therapy, exercise, acupuncture), and the arts (visual, performance, music, dance, literary), can reboot our nervous system, teach us productive skills to manage symptoms, and help us to connect with ourselves and others and have a better quality of life amidst our pain experiences.
The Role of Art and Mindfulness For Pain Control
Using the Arts and mindfulness for its health benefits is widely becoming a critical component of healthcare to positively enhance, impact, healv and strengthen overall health and well-being.vi Research shows that mindfulness, or the act of paying full attention to the present moment without judgement,vii is a very effective practice to provide relief for both physical and psychological symptoms of chronic pain. Jon Kabat-Zinn, leading researcher of MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) advocates that mindfulness can alleviate symptoms of pain, reduce stress in the body, alter our negative thought distortions to more positive ones, create emotional balance, and enhance overall health.viii
It’s no surprise then, that combining the art making process with mindfulness can be an effective way to tackle pain management. The very act of creativity and expression can promote body awareness,ix be an effective practice for rehabilitation and lead to significant life changes. It also offers a tangible and fun way to learn mindfulness skills, and encourage self-compassionate creativity.
What types of art activities can we do to learn mindfulness?
There are a wide variety of artistic activities that can help us learn to be mindful. Here are a few ideas:
- Activities such as drawing, paper marbling or knitting can provide temporary respite or healthy distraction from physical symptoms of pain,xi xii and allow chronic pain sufferers to lose themselves in the moment or artistic process.xii xiii
- Reflective journaling and guided meditation connects both the physical body and the psychological mind, using the art making process to encourage positive self-care, and experimentation and risk-taking, two essential qualities of the art-making process.xiv
- Creating a self-portrait or vision board is a way to explore understandings of self, improve self-confidence,xv process suffering or significant life changes, and provide a visual representation of the life you want to have moving forward.
- Making art with others in a supportive environment can help us feel connected and understood by talking to others about pain experiences,xvi building companionship, and having a sense of belonging, and decreasing social isolation and loneliness.
- Selecting from a range of colours, shapes or images in an art activity encourages experimentation,xvii affirms a sense of control over surroundings and the decision-making process, and builds upon and improves cognitive functions (memory processing and problem solving).xviii
Using art and mindfulness for pain control, along with healthy changes to our diet, sleep, and exercise regimes and with attentiveness to empathy and creativity can help lower stress levels, give our nervous system a rest, and helps to promote self-care habits. By using a variety of creative processes, health difficulties can be better expressed, understood, accepted, and help us build our resilience. xix
I hope this article has given you a taste of the benefits of using art and mindfulness for pain control. If you want to try something fun, meet others who understand and support you, and learn how to manage symptoms through the process of creating, join us in our Pain in the Arts class, where we will learn how to make art with a mindfulness lens.
If you want to learn more about our Arts in Health Program at Alongside You, please visit our page on Arts in Health.
ii. Canadian Pain Task Force Report. 2021 Accessed July 13th, 2022. Link
iii. Canadian Pain Task Force Report. 2021 Accessed July 13th, 2022. Link
iv. Xu, Xiao “Nearly 900,000 British Columbians don’t have a family doctor, leaving walk-in clinics and ERs swamped.” Globe and Mail. April 29 2022. Accessed July 13th. Link
v. Fancourt, Dr. Daisy; Warren, Katey and Augusterson, Henry. “Evidence summary for policy: The role of arts in improving health and wellbeing.” Report to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport. April 2020. Accessed July 5th, 2022.
viii. Gardner-Nix, Dr. Jackie and Lucie Costin-Hall. The Mindfulness Solution to Pain. New Harbinger Publicaitons, Inc. 2009: vii.
ix. Callahan, Margaret Jones. Mindfulness Based Art: The Sparks Guide for Educators and Counselors. Friesen Press. 2016.
x. Ann Behav Med. Eds. Mindfulness Meditation for Chronic Pain: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.2017 Apr;51(2):199-213.Link
xi. Kabat-Zinn, J., Lipworth, L. & Burney, R. J The clinical use of mindfulness meditation for the self-regulation of chronic pain. Behav Med (1985) 8: 163.
xii. Dr. Daniel Potts. How art therapy enhances the life for Dementia Patients. 2014. Accessed September 15th, 2016. Link
xiii. “The Art of Pain Management.” American Chronic Pain Association: Link
xiv. McNiff, Shaun. Chapter 2: The Role of Witnessing and Immersion in the Moment of Arts Therapy Experience. P. 41. In In Mindfulness and the Arts Therapies: Theory and Practice. Laury Rappaport ed. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 2014: 38-50.
xv. McNiff, Shaun. Chapter 2: The Role of Witnessing and Immersion in the Moment of Arts Therapy Experience. P. 40. In In Mindfulness and the Arts Therapies: Theory and Practice. Laury Rappaport ed. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 2014: 38-50.
xvi. Monti, Daniel W., Caroline Peterson, et al. A Randomized, Controlled Trial of Mindfulness-based Art Therapy (MBAT) for Women with Cancer. Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, PA, Psycho-Oncology 15:363–373 (2006)
xvii. McNiff, Shaun. Chapter 2: The Role of Witnessing and Immersion in the Moment of Arts Therapy Experience. P. 41. In In Mindfulness and the Arts Therapies: Theory and Practice. Laury Rappaport ed. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 2014: 38-50.
xviii. Quintana Hernández DJ et all. The effects of a neuropsychology program based on mindfulness on Alzheimer’s disease: randomized double-blind clinical study. Revista Espanola de Geriatria y Gerontologia [2014, 49(4):165-172]
xix. McNiff, Shaun. Chapter 2: The Role of Witnessing and Immersion in the Moment of Arts Therapy Experience. P. 40. In In Mindfulness and the Arts Therapies: Theory and Practice. Laury Rappaport ed. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 2014: 38-50.