Did you know that meditation can actually change the way your brain senses pain? Or, that just three 20-minute sessions a week could control your pain? Getting started with meditation is an important practice for pain patients. We’ll look at some of the benefits of meditation later in this post, but first here are our favorite meditation apps for beginners to get you started.
What is meditation?
Meditation is essentially a state of stillness. It’s a state of total awareness and total presence in the now that involves no thinking. Meditation practices, such as focusing on each breath in and then each breath out, are designed to guide us into this thoughtless state.
Other meditation practices include traditional exercise programs such as tai chi, qigong, or yoga. Non-traditional methods to fall into a state of flow might be painting or walking.
An immense variety of guided meditations are available which teach you to visualize yourself in certain locations or with light emanating from various places in the body. Sound meditations might use Tibetan bowls or other healing sounds to help you relax into the moment and forget about the past or future. One of the best ways to get into the practice today is with meditation apps for beginners.
During the day, we may have any number of thoughts running through our heads. “Remember to get milk. Remember to do the laundry. Oh gosh, that person is so annoying. I am so horrible at this task. Ugh, I wish I didn’t feel this way.” Does any of that sound familiar?
Most of life’s stress comes not from the events themselves, but from our thoughts about them. We react to things we don’t like, people who say something that offends us, or worry about horrible things that could happen, but probably won’t. Meditation practices help us unravel those thoughts so we can move through life a little lighter, with a little more pep in our step.
Meditation helps us realize that our power lies in our reaction to circumstances. We can’t control what happens on the outside, but we can control our reactions. This newfound power of presence can dramatically reduce stress, help with pain management, and increase creativity.
Through meditation practices and focusing on the breath or doing a guided meditation, we can begin to separate ourselves from our thoughts, find space between them, even if it’s just a second, and ultimately lengthen the spaces between those thoughts.
Practitioners learn to observe their minds and identify less with their thoughts. Just because you think something doesn’t make it true. For example, if you think you are not beautiful or not loved, that’s false because you’re both.
The best meditation apps for beginners
With free, freemium, and paid options, these are our favorite meditation apps for beginners.
This free app teaches you the “7 steps of calm” and offers seven guided meditations ranging in length from two to 30 minutes. The subscription option offers an additional 50 tracks, each with a different focus (sleep, energy, etc.). Available for iOS and Android phones.
2. Simply Being
Two dollars gets you one of the most popular apps in the iTunes app library. Meditations are designed by practitioners with over 30 years of practice and teaching experience. You can choose meditations from five to 20 minutes, listening with or without music or nature sounds. Also available for iOS and Android.
This free app starts you off with “Take 10,” a daily series of ten, ten-minute meditations. You can download this meditation app for use offline, which can be helpful when you find yourself in an internet dead zone. Headspace also offers additional meditations for purchase as well as more specialized free meditations for better sleep and more energy.
Breathe2Relax starts with the most basic of meditation techniques: breathing. The focus of this meditation app is learning how to breathe to manage stress and anger. Because focusing on the breath is a fundamental part of any type of meditation, this free app is a great place to start.
This iOS-only app features meditations from some of mindfulness meditation’s heavy hitters, including Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Not only does this app guide you in learning how to practice mindfulness, but it also offers additional talks and conversations about the practice itself. Free.
Omvana is free for both iOS and Android phones and takes a slightly different tack for meditation. This app helps to focus on specific areas of your life rather than simply guiding you to clear your mind. The library of options is extensive and in-app tools offer you the option of recording your mood to select the right meditation for you.
7. Smiling Mind
Smiling Mind’s slogan (“meditation made easy”) is just the first wonderful thing about this meditation app. Developed specifically for adolescents by a group of mental health professionals, Smiling Mind aims to help young people deal with depression, anxiety, and stress through simple mindfulness meditation practices. A free but invaluable tool for a lifetime of calm.
Less a meditation app and more an app for total-body care, MINDBODY Connect uses your location to help connect you with services from spas to yoga studios. You can book fitness classes and spa services like massage and reiki right through the app. The app is free, but the services are not.
What are the benefits of meditation for pain relief?
Meditation has been around for thousands of years, mostly within a religious or spiritual context, but increasing amounts of research are uncovering tangible benefits for this simple practice.T he idea of meditation helping chronic pain sufferers manage their discomfort and improve quality of life is relatively new, but rapidly gaining speed, especially as the dangers of opioid medications come into greater view.
From reducing stress to managing pain to increasing the ability to be mindful and present in life, meditation’s benefits are numerous.
1. Meditation helps manage chronic pain
Researchers at Harvard and MIT published research that showed how just eight weeks of meditation actually changed the structure of the brain to help relieve stress and pain. Christopher Moore, an MIT neuroscientist and senior author of the paper, says that it is thoughtful control of the alpha waves in the brain that give meditation its power to relieve pain:
“These activity patterns [in meditation] are thought to minimize distractions, to diminish the likelihood stimuli will grab your attention. Our data indicate that meditation training makes you better at focusing, in part by allowing you to better regulate how things that arise will impact you.”
Other research has shown that just three 20-minute sessions of meditation can help control pain. A review of studies on mindfulness meditation by Brown University found that consistent meditation helped patients locate and turn down the “volume knob” on sensations. It can be especially helpful for nerve pain such as that caused by fibromyalgia and diabetic neuropathy.
An article in The Atlantic explored the connection, noting that meditation could give new hope to people for whom no other remedies work, and cited a Forest Wake University study that found a group of meditators experienced a 40% reduction in pain. One theory about why meditation works to reduce pain is that it helps to reduce stress, according to The Atlantic.
However, studies now show that meditation might lead to changes in the brain. Brain sections related to the processing of pain and the regulation of emotions and behavior appear to alter their functioning with meditation, The Atlantic reports.
Those brain changes result in decreased activity in pain processing and increased activity in the others. So a person in pain who meditates could feel less anger or sadness, and be less likely to act out because of those emotions.
2. Meditation reduces stress
Perhaps one of the more commonly known benefits of meditation is stress reduction. Psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Hoge tells Harvard Health Publications that meditation is a wonderful antidote to anxiety. She says:
“People with anxiety have a problem dealing with distracting thoughts that have too much power… They can’t distinguish between a problem-solving thought and a worry that has no benefit.”
As an example, Hoge says anxious people might go from worrying about arriving to work late to fears about losing their job and the disaster that will unfold from there. She adds:
“Mindfulness teaches you to recognize, ‘Oh, there’s that thought again. I’ve been here before. But it’s just that—a thought, and not a part of my core self.”
3. Meditation alleviates depression
Psychologists link the idea of ruminating, running the same thought over and over again in the head, to depression. Depressed people tend to think the same, self-critical or negative thought over and over and have a difficult time escaping that negative feedback loop, according to Everyday Health.
Although people with depression often think that this inward focus and attempt at finding a solution will make them feel better, it tends to make them feel worse. Through the practice of meditation, people can learn to quiet those thoughts and move into a more positive mindset.
The key to unlocking meditation’s benefits is consistency. The practice takes time, and making the effort is key. Setting aside even five minutes each day and then perhaps increasing from there as needed can begin to shift your thoughts and help you enjoy all of meditation’s benefits.
4. Meditation enhances creativity
Dutch researchers at Leiden University found even beginning meditators experienced an enhanced ability to develop new ideas. The most effective type of meditation practice in the study was so-called open monitoring meditation, which involves staying aware of all thoughts and sensations that arise without responding to them. The other practice studied was focused attention meditation, which involves focusing on a specific thought—like a mantra—or object.
Enhanced creativity was discovered with divergent thinking, which asked study subjects to list as many uses as possible for an object like a pen. The other type of thinking was called convergent thinking. To study that type, researchers gave participants three unrelated words and asked them to find a common theme.
Meditation for pain relief is an accessible alternative treatment that is completely free of side effects. It requires no special equipment to get started. Download one of our favorite meditation apps for beginners to get started today!