The Science and Practice of Staying Present Through Difficult Times


Research suggests that when we turn towards pain and discomfort, we can experience less of it. Plus — a guided meditation for being mindful when things get tough.

Research into mindfulness has shown the benefits of staying present, and of gently turning towards difficulty. Mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP) trains people with addictive habits to manage their cravings mindfully by staying present to the sensations of craving, rather than trying to distract from them, avoid them or defeat them.

The Science of Staying Present
In a large trial of MBRP, mindfulness-trained patients drank and used drugs significantly less than those who were treated with cognitive-behavioural approaches, and a control group who attended twelve-step and psycho-education groups. The authors of the study conclude that mindfulness was the most successful approach, especially over the longer term, because it enabled patients to “monitor and skilfully cope with discomfort associated with craving or negative affect.” A similar study with smokers found that mindfulness training was more than five times as effective as a standard smoking cessation programme, as measured by abstinence from cigarettes after four months (31 per cent compared to 6 per cent). Another study has suggested that mindful people are more able to tolerate their own distress, rather than react in harmful ways.

There are benefits to staying present with physical, as well as emotional, discomfort. Fadel Zeidan and colleagues suggest that meditation practice is associated with brain changes that indicate and reflect shifts in people’s experience of, and relationship with, pain. Meditators show decreased activity in the primary somatosensory cortex (an area of the brain involved in registering pain) and increased activity in three areas involved in the regulation of pain—the anterior insula, the anterior cingulate cortex and the pre-frontal cortex. When gently turning towards pain, people report that they experience less of it, and their resistance usually decreases. They may not get so caught up in the negative stories and evasive reactions that tend to accompany pain but do nothing to stop it (and, indeed, may increase the mind’s perception of it). This may be why people with chronic conditions have reported reductions in pain after training in mindfulness, even though they still suffer from the illness.

Read more