Mind Over Muscle-Ups

By Hilary Achauer

In Rest Day/Theory

June 08, 2015

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Scientists and meditation experts explain how focus and mindfulness can help athletes rise above burning discomfort to improve fitness.

On the surface, pain seems straightforward. You get poked with a sharp stick. It hurts. The end. Or you do Fran. Your burning quads and forearms force you to put down the barbell. The pain was too much.

As with many things involving the human body, pain—and our perception of it—is actually much more complicated. Scientists have discovered pain and emotion are deeply intertwined. In a study designed to measure the link between emotion and pain perception, participants listened to sad music while reading depressing statements such as, “It seems such an effort to do anything.” Researchers then touched the subjects with a hot probe and asked them to rate the level of pain. A control group listened to neutral music and read neutral statements before getting poked with the same probe.

Researchers found those who listened to sad music reported the pain experience as much worse than those in the control group. What’s more, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a technique for measuring brain activity, supported the reports of increased pain by showing increased activity in the various pain receptors of the brain.

The implications of this study, and others like it, are far reaching. Instead of passively accepting pain, it’s possible to train the brain with techniques such as mindfulness and meditation to filter pain out—or at least mute the emotional reaction to the stimulus.

Learning how to manage the emotional side of pain is a powerful tool for both athletes and those suffering from chronic pain.

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