A searing pain struck Jill Satterfield in the abdomen for the first time in her 20s. Jill’s doctors didn’t know what was causing her pain, and often speculated that there was no physical cause to her suffering. Jill felt the emotional effects of being in constant physical agony; she felt scared, lonely, and isolated.
After turning to mediation 35 years ago, Jill reconnected with her body. Through meditation and yoga she managed her pain and found the motivation to continue seeking medical opinions. She eventually was not only cured of her chronic pain, but re-established peristalsis, part of the autonomic nervous system. Because of this life-changing experience, she has been teaching meditation, mindfulness, and yoga therapy to people with chronic pain and illnesses for over 25 years.
Mindfulness meditation helps you focus on your breath or how your body feels, and accept your thoughts and feelings without reacting to them. We recently talked to Jill about the ways mindfulness meditation helps people in pain enjoy the present moment more, feel empowered, and reduce physical pain. Jill’s philosophy will show you how a simple, guided meditation practice can help make you more at ease and resilient—incredibly important for managing pain.
How did you first discover yoga and meditation as a way to treat your chronic pain?
I came across yoga randomly. I took a yoga class when I was in school in the late 70’s, before yoga was well known. There weren’t yoga studios on every corner in New York City like there are now. When I moved about an hour north of New York, I began to take classes more frequently and started my own practice.
I sought out meditation on purpose to work with my mind, which was registering my pain. It was so disheartening to hear from the medical community that they couldn’t find a reason for my pain—that it must be all in my mind.
I thought, if the pain is indeed in my mind, then I need to work with my mind. Meditation turned out to be the key.
Yoga played a part in what I was able to do with my body, but it was mainly meditation that helped me heal on many different levels—not just physically, but emotionally and mentally.
How does fostering a connection with our bodies promote emotional healing?
When we’re in pain or when we’re not well, we disconnect from ourselves because it’s not comfortable to be in own skin.
One of the things that mindfulness and meditation does is create a connection. We can connect or reconnect to parts of our body, heart or mind—anywhere we’ve disconnected from. This connection moves our awareness and consciousness to something and promotes being present with it.
Sometimes in meditation we talk about turning the light of awareness onto or towards something. There’s an automatic change or response when you turn your awareness towards a part of the body that has been ignored or disassociated from. Seeking that connection with our bodies and ourselves is really one of the most important things we can do to promote change.
There’s transformative change—not necessarily healing change—but a transformation in how you view that area of your body. For example, a change in how you gain access to the area to relax it.
The connection allows us to see our body, heart, and mind as they really are in the moment—without loathing, disdain, or disappointment.
This connection promotes compassion. We can start to become self-compassionate again, or even for the first time. When we turn our kindness towards ourselves, fundamental healing occurs.
How does meditation help people in pain soothe their suffering?
Chronic pain and illness, trauma, depression, and anxiety can be heightened, acute experiences. When we’re experiencing something that is chronic, really strong, or overwhelming—it’s not skillful to walk into the fire of it. There are times to turn towards our pain and what might be consuming us, and there are times to turn away. It’s not always helpful to constantly look straight at the problem. You’re already consumed with your physical or emotional pain, so you need relief and a respite from it.
Meditation can be soothing, which can then offer the mind, heart, and body a break. Meditation eventually allows us the capacity to turn towards something with kindness, which is incredibly helpful for coping mentally, emotionally, and physically.
How does meditation and yoga ease physical pain?
We can train ourselves to relax the body around an area of pain. There’s a chain link reaction that goes on in our bodies when we’re in pain. For example, if your right shoulder is constantly uncomfortable, or there was an injury to it, the muscles around your shoulder will automatically soldier up and create a shield of tightness around that area. Sometimes it travels and consumes more area, like up into your neck, or partially down your arm, even down your back—it’s all in theory to protect the injured or traumatized area. That reaction is called self armoring—and it only serves to make the pain worse. So, if we can learn to relax the entire area around the shoulder, then most of the time the pain will subside greatly.
What would you tell someone in chronic pain that’s new to meditation?
There are different meditation tools and techniques depending on what someone is suffering from. Mindfulness is an important component of meditation, but there are a lot of practices that can help—like compassion or forgiveness practices. These are skills that anyone can learn at anytime.
Initially it’s helpful to start with awareness and kindness practices, and easy breathing techniques. There’s an automatic shift in how we view pain—and that’s empowering.
Self-empowerment is lacking when you’re in chronic pain. Pain, PTSD, depression and anxiety make you feel very disempowered. Often we resign to thinking that there’s nothing we can do for ourselves and nothing anyone can do for us. That’s just lack of information. There are a lot of things we can do to help ourselves—but we need to be taught, informed, educated, and guided. With good guidance, we learn to ride the bicycle by ourselves. It’s our job as teachers, counselors or therapists to liberate others to help themselves after we’ve given them the tools to do so. Teachers are there to guide and deepen people’s path towards living in the moment with more ease and compassion—no matter what difficulties are occurring.
Meditation isn’t complicated. There are simple awareness and relaxation techniques that create a huge sense of relief. They’re very accessible, practical, and extremely helpful.
Jill also mentioned that practicing mindfulness is a great way to control, lessen, or overcome anxiety. Controlling your anxiety has a direct positive impact on your pain. Being aware of how your body feels when major stress is beginning to affect your body or you’re about to have an anxiety attack is critical for confronting your anxiety. Lessening or cutting off stress in the moment means you won’t tense up as much, which aggravates your existing spot of pain.
Chronic stress also causes high levels of inflammation in the body. But researchers believe that mindfulness-based meditation and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can significantly improve quality of life and lessen inflammation—and therefore pain and symptoms—by changing the way patients relate to their conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and inflammatory bowel disease. After learning Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) techniques, a group of older adults that were in so much pain from osteoarthritis that it caused insomnia reported both immediate and long-term improvement in pain and sleep.
If you’re interested in being guided through CBT, mindfulness, and meditation to alleviate your pain, try Lantern free for seven days now.