How Yoga and Meditation Reduce Pain: Exploring Primary and Secondary Suffering

Primary and secondary suffering can help us understand how to better manage our pain.

As some of us know too well, living with a chronic illness involves a lot of pain and suffering, sometimes with no end in sight. There is no medication or magic bullet that can disappear your pain.

I talk a lot about how yoga, meditation, and mindfulness helped me recover from chronic fatigue syndrome. Yet ‘recover’ and ‘cure’ are still words I feel uncomfortable using. I don’t see yoga and meditation as  ‘cures’ or ‘treatments’ for illnesses. Yoga and meditation help reduce the amount of pain and energy your create around your illness, which can help you live better with illness, and potentially lead to recovery down the line. To better understand this concept, we need to talk about primary and secondary suffering.

What is primary suffering?

Primary suffering is physical pain that you experience as a result of illness, injury, and fatigue. Depending on your condition, there may or may not be anything you can do about this pain. This pain can be seen as the base level of pain in your body at this time.

What is secondary suffering?

Secondary suffering is the emotional and sometimes physical pain we have as a reaction to primary suffering. If you feel (rightfully) angry, sad, depressed, anxious, or hopeless because of your illness, this is secondary suffering. Most people aren’t able to help these feelings of secondary suffering. It’s an instinctual reaction to being in constant pain.

The pain you end up feeling on a daily basis, is a combination of both primary and secondary suffering. To get a better understanding of primary and secondary pain, you can watch this video from the Breathworks Mindfulness organisation, where they explain how primary and secondary suffering work with a short exercise.

What yoga and meditation help us to do, is to reduce the amount of secondary suffering present in our bodies. Reducing secondary suffering can lower your overall amount of pain, making managing from day to day, and making it easier to care for yourself.  

How to reduce secondary suffering

“You can’t control the wind, but you can adjust the sails” is one of my favourite proverbs. You’ve probably also heard the saying, “you can’t control other peoples actions, only your reactions”.

Managing pain in your body, is similar to managing the external pains of dealing with difficult people or situations in your life. You can’t make the pain go away, but you can choose how you react and respond to it. If you can separate the two types of suffering within you, this is a crucial step in dissolving secondary suffering.

It’s important to acknowledge that although the suffering is created by the mind, your pain is still real. You really do feel it. It exists and it can be genuinely overwhelming. But once you understand the underlying mechanisms of this secondary pain, you can begin to release it.

Here are some steps you may find helpful in understanding and managing secondary pain. These steps may seem counter-intuitive to how you should treat your pain, but many people have found (myself included) that these mindful methods can help you better manage your chronic pain.

Primary and secondary suffering

Steps to reduce secondary suffering

1. Begin by cultivating a sense of kindness and compassion towards your pain. Treat your pain the way you would treat your child or best friend if they were sick and injured. And just allow the pain to be in your body, as it is, rather than trying to force it away.

2. Move towards the pain. By this I mean acknowledge that the pain is there, and notice if you have any resistance to fully feeling the pain. Do you try to avoid the pain by distracting yourself with other activities or thoughts? If so, see if you can gently begin to remove these barriers to the pain.

3. Embrace impermanence. Once you start to really feel your pain, you will probably notice that it is not consistent. One moment you may feel an intense burst of pain, the next moment it may be a duller pain, and the next none at all. You’ve probably already noticed how chronic illness can be unpredictable. But when we realise that all sensations lack permanence it’s easier to move away from catastrophic thinking which can cause a great deal of secondary suffering.

(Catastrophic thinking is thoughts like: I’ll always be in pain, I’ll never get better, I’ll be sick forever, etc.)

Research on primary and secondary suffering

This study from Oxford University further elaborates on the effects of secondary suffering on the overall pain we feel, and how meditation can play a key role in reducing that suffering. Researchers measured the impact that even low levels of anxiety can have on pain. In the study, researchers induced low-level anxiety for one group of volunteers before burning the back of their hand.

Another group of volunteers were prompted to meditate before receiving the burn. The volunteers who were given the anxious stimulus before being burned had significantly higher levels of pain than those who got no prompt, or a relaxing stimulus before the burn. Even more interesting, is that experienced meditators tended to experience even less pain than the new meditators in the group.

Can mindfulness and meditation really reduce pain?

When in pain, it’s a very normal response to want to fight and resist this pain. Phrases like “we can beat this” are common amongst patient groups and charities. I find the terminology used very interesting. It feels like we’re going to a championship sports match and want to win, not working with our bodies which we love and cherish. What if the fighting approach, while a natural response, is the wrong way to go about things. What if this response is actually creating more pain rather than eliminating it?

A final note- mindfulness and acceptance of your pain, is not resignation. It is simply accepting the situation as it is at this moment. It is allowing yourself to stop struggling and fighting against yourself and allowing peace and kindness to take its place. Once you can make this transition, secondary suffering will begin to diminish. It is sometimes the case that your primary pain will also start to decrease once you allow it the space to do so.

I go into more detail about how yoga and meditation can help reduce secondary (and primary) suffering in the second week of Chronically Kind Yoga. This course is a great resource for anyone who wants to get deep into the effects of primary and secondary suffering. 

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18 Responses

  1. […] reading my blog, you also know that yoga is chock full of benefits to your health and can help you manage and overcome symptoms of chronic illness . So now that we have the opportunity with good weather, […]
  2. Great tips and thanks for sharing. I didn't know that Yoga could help ease your pain especially with secondary sufferings like Moving Towards Your Pain.
    • Thanks, Apolline! Yes, it's helped me so much with pain and secondary sufferings :). Thanks for reading!
  3. I deal with some chronic issues, and this is right on. It's so easy to be so busy taking care of the primary pain that we can neglect the secondary pain. I hadn't really thought about it in terms of tiers before. This is a great way to help me visualize what I'm dealing with.
    • I'm glad you found it helpful, Jennifer! Let me know if you have any other questions! Thanks for reading :).
  4. This is such a great article. As a counselor I see clients who fight the pain and don't embrace it and move into it. I work with them to notice it, lean into it and they can even dissolve it at times. Shifting what you say to yourself around the pain (or anything for that matter) can really help change your mood.
    • Hi Candess, thanks for reading! It's so interesting to hear that you see this happening as a counsellor! I definitely agree shifting your self talk can make a huge difference!
  5. I have been saying for months I need to take up yoga again, even if just 20min a couple of times a week as well as my other work outs. I just know it will help me sleep and help with my stress levels.
    • I've got a few free short videos under 'free videos' if you want to get started again! Thanks for reading, Sonya!
  6. Great article. I have not done yoga in some time, and remember how it helped neck tension. I need to get a refresher.
    • I have some short videos under 'free videos' if you're interested! It can for sure help with neck tension. Thanks for reading, Robin!
  7. I love your idea to view the pain as temporary or sporadic. This does make a difference in my thought process and of course towards releasing the pain
  8. Interesting concept to in essence move toward your pain instead of fight against it. As a coach I know how powerful mindset and perspective can be. I haven't thought about it in the context of pain though. Great topic!
  9. What an interesting way to deal with pain. I must say it's not something I've thought of. When I have had flare ups, depending on the severity, I either just power through it or take a forced rest day--and I admit to being a lousy patient. I will definitely bookmark this to refer back to.
    • This is my opinion : you don’t have to put ufw to “enable”. I haven’t use it since last may and there have been no problems at all. OK. You can put ufw to enable if you get better peace of mind but honestly – it’s not necessary.Correct me if i’m wrong.
  10. This is definitely one of the most important aspects of yoga. Trusting this idea could help a lot of people.
  11. I know there is so much value in yoga and meditation.. but I just don't make the time.. whyyyyy. I plan to get better.. for real!
  12. I just started yoga last week and have completed 5 classes so far! I love yoga and have found health benefits already; including not being as tight in the back and neck. I also appreciate your tip about acknowledging the pain. That is SO important to give it a voice so it can move through and out!
  13. Very interesting. Having suffered from fibromyalgia, I understand pain and fatigue. I've found I get the most relief when I forgive myself and others.
  14. […] how connected our minds and bodies are helps us to understand small actions we can take to reduce secondary suffering.   As we take each pose on the mat in yoga practice, it can be a transformative experience. […]
  15. […] In this post, I talked about primary vs. Secondary suffering. Primary suffering is the pain we can’t control (eg. Fighting a Hungarian Horntail in the Triwizard tournament), secondary suffering is the pain we can control (eg. Working yourself into a fretful state by worrying about fighting a Hungarian Horntail in the Triwizard tournament). Hagrid perfectly expresses that idea with this quote.  […]

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