Working as a psychologist in pain management, on several occasions I have been asked whether I think a person's pain is 'in their mind'. When we think about it, this is an odd question. The possibility that pain could be 'in the mind' implies that it may be imaginary, deliberate or a sign of mental weakness. None of these scenarios are either helpful or realistic. However, they can easily stem from the way we have learned to think about the functioning of the human body.
For the past 400 years we have been massively influenced by a theory introduced by Descartes which stated that the body and mind were separate entities. It is fascinating to reflect that we still work to this theory, both in medical and everyday settings, despite it not fitting with our everyday experience or with current scientific understanding.
When we pay attention, it is quite easy to notice how the body can affect the mind and vice versa. Just think of the last movie you watched. Depending on what happened, you likely experienced feelings of excitement, tension or tenderness not only in your mind but also reflected by the body. You may have noticed physical tension during excitement or suspense, feelings of arousal during love scenes and feelings of heaviness or a lump in the throat in response to sad scenes. In fact, though it can be easier to spot at some times than others, the body is constantly reflecting the state of our mind, and the mind is constantly reflecting the state of our body.
When we practice the bodyscan, which is a core mindfulness practice, we allow ourselves the opportunity to simply tune in to the body and make contact with what we notice there. For some of us this may be a new experience, as we have been used to focusing so much on thinking and planning that we have paid little attention to signals from the body. As we continue to practice, this renewed connection with our body becomes a rich resource. We may spot signs of tension in the body and be empowered to take the action required to look after our needs. We may become more aware of a valuable 'gut feeling' about certain situations that helps us to make good decisions. We can also more readily draw our attention back into the body at times of difficulty in a way that helps us to ground and steady ourselves.
Importantly, because we are working with direct experience, rather than our learned expectations of how things should work, we will learn that far from being two separate entities, the body and mind are two aspects of the same thing - our human experience. This understanding opens up the possibility that we can benefit from treating our physical symptoms holistically, not because they are 'in the mind' but simply because they are located within our whole experience. The mind and body are not separate.