11 May 2023

As we observe Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Day on 13 May, Breathworks Co-Founder Vidyamala Burch OBE shares her knowledge of managing a spinal injury and pain with these 6 techniques. Vidyamala sustained several spinal injuries as a young person that required multiple surgeries and left her with incomplete paraplegia and chronic pain. These techniques and lived-experience has informed Breathworks Mindfulness for Health approach, which has helped over 100,000 people around the world to manage their pain and wellbeing with greater ease. 

Here are her 6 ways in which a mindfulness-based approach can help those with spinal injuries: 

1) Distinguish between Primary and Secondary Suffering 

Pain can be an overwhelming experience that, over time, can start to weigh you down. Mindfulness techniques can help to lighten the load by changing the way that pain is experienced through training the mind to respond differently. The way that we experience pain is made up of two elements: our primary and secondary suffering. Our primary suffering is the direct, felt experience of pain in the moment. Our secondary suffering is the negative thoughts and judgements that we add on top in reaction to pain. As the thoughts, emotions and worries build, we add layers of additional suffering that contribute to our physical tension and felt pain – creating a snowball effect that worsens over time. Through awareness we can learn to accept any primary pain in each moment with a quiet grace and let go of the secondary reactive suffering. This helps cut through spirals of negative thinking before we are dragged in. We can make choices to take care of what we really need in that moment, like breathing a little deeper and slower or relaxing the mind. This video from Breathworks explains how this works a little more. 

2) When in doubt, breathe out

The breath is a powerful tool that can be used to reduce secondary stress, pain and built-up tension. When we are dealing with trauma and distress, we tend to hold our breath without realising it. This immediately adds to tension in the body and leads to more discomfort. Taking deep breaths activates the parasympathetic soothing aspect of the nervous system and can be transformative in calming down the body and the mind. A trick is to focus on your outbreath so that it becomes a little longer than your inbreath.

3) Focus on compassionate acceptance

Often we can be hard on ourselves when we are not in the body we wish to be. Bringing a sense of kindness towards yourself and what you are going through can help you learn to be with what you are experiencing, rather than fighting it, so you can care for yourself in the best way that you can. Can you treat yourself the way you’d naturally respond to a loved one going through your experience?

4) Seeking out pleasure

Life can seem grim when living with a spinal injury but there will always be pleasant things in your environment. Actively seeking those out and taking time to savour them can re-wire your brain away from a pain orientation towards being able to enjoy things more. It could be looking at the blue sky, a lovely colour in your room, or a nice meal. When I was in hospital, I used to bring my focus to the clean sheets on my bed and their cool touch. See if you stay with each pleasant experience for at least 5 seconds to activate these brain changes. 

5) Mindfulness in Daily Life 

A myth is that mindfulness can only be done when meditating. Mindfulness in fact can happen at any moment: it could be taking a moment to stop and breathe or noticing the aroma of your morning coffee. These little magic moments can release us from the difficulty that we might be experiencing. In that moment we are not ruminating about the past or catastrophising about the future. Mindfulness in Daily Life is a neat acronym ‘MIDL’ which reminds you to stay steady and grounded and follow a balanced ‘middle way’ in your daily life.

6) Whole life well-being

Take a broad approach to your situation and try to make small changes across your whole life. My approach called HEALS reminds you to take care of: 

  • Healthy eating and nutrition
  • Exercise and engaging in rehab
  • Awareness and looking after your mind 
  • Love for yourself, other people and nature 
  • Sleep

If you are interested in learning more about how mindfulness can help you manage a spinal injury our  ‘Mindfulness for Health’ programme is an 8-week course designed as the first step to learning the approach. You’ll learn tools for effective pacing and creating a mindfulness practice. Courses are held online and run throughout the year. More information is here. We also have a free online community where you can meet and meditate with other like-minded people going through health and other life challenges.