That dovetails with a form of meditation Rudolph and many other practitioners use, which she calls “open awareness,” where the goal is not to repress thoughts about pain, but to try “letting them in and observing them.”

Meditation’s goal is to relax the mind and body, engage feelings about pain or other challenges, release tension and tap into a positive outlook – despite a chronic illness like arthritis. Focusing on negativity, especially on feelings of loss of health and well-being, only exacerbates pain, Rudolph says. “Meditation helps bring things into present-moment awareness, to see where we are, and assess things in that moment.”

It’s easy for someone with a chronic illness to give into pain and feelings of victimization, says Rudolph, who has been working with the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s Public Health Institute to bring these techniques to more people with arthritis. “My job is to bring them out of a victim mentality and bring them to a place where they feel they have a choice. With our thoughts, we create a reality. We can actually change our neural pathways by changing the way we think.”

A Scientific Approach to Meditation

Many in the medical community agree with Rudolph that mindfulness/meditation practice can help people with arthritis take control of their pain and emotions and manage them more successfully. Scientific studies are showing the positive results of meditation practice for people with arthritis pain.

“If you’re a skeptic [about meditation], you’re standing on an island of ice that is slowly shrinking,” says Dr. Rosenzweig, who was impressed by the positive results of patients using the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) therapy created by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Meditation, says Dr. Rosenzweig, allows people struggling with chronic pain and its psychological effects, such as anxiety or depression, to recognize the positive aspects of their life, and to put pain in its place.

“This particular program [MBSR] is a health intervention. Not to turn people into talented meditators, but to teach people to improve their moment-to-moment experience in life,” says Dr. Rosenzweig, who also specializes in hospice and palliative care. “You have pain, and then there’s the reaction to that pain. Often, that reaction can make the pain worse.”

Meditation or mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy can interrupt that vicious cycle, he says. “You bring in some choices and practices that help to tone down the pain experience. With pain, tension can begin to arise in points of the body even distant from the point where the pain is originating. So we can attend to the body, make adjustments and relax certain areas before escalation to a crisis point.