Study of 80 Veterans Shows that MSC is a Valuable Addition to Medical Pain Management Strategies

When responding to pain, two of the most common options to consider are prescription medications or talk therapy. Although these resources can be healing and supportive for many people encountering difficulties, they are not the only ways to learn how to cope with physical and/or emotional pain. Given that Veterans have higher rates of chronic conditions and severe pain compared to the general population (Eibner et al., 2016; Nahin, 2017), it is necessary to understand how to support their health and wellbeing. 

For the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), there is a current transition to focusing on Veterans’ Whole Health, which is a more holistic approach to healthcare that honors the interconnection of physical, mental, emotional, and social wellness. This is a shift from “What’s the matter with you?” to “What matters to you?”, which is a powerful framework that allows Veterans to express their values, needs, and goals to inform and direct their health plan. Recent research by Dr. Greg Serpa and colleagues (2020) suggests that the Mindful Self-Compassion program is a promising way to support Veterans’ psychological and physical health that is in alignment with the Whole Health approach and can transform their lives for the better.

In this study, researchers explored the effects of the 8-week Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) program for Veterans facing a range of physical and mental ailments (Serpa et al., 2020). Data was collected from 12 MSC programs conducted within the Greater Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Healthcare System. In the total group of 80 Veterans, comprising men and women from a range of races/ethnicities, 96% of participants indicated having a positive experience of the intervention. Most Veterans (74%) completed the program and experienced improved emotional and mental wellbeing. In particular, they had increases in self-compassion, happiness, and satisfaction with their social role, and decreases in depression, anxiety, and fatigue. No differences were observed between men and women, suggesting that MSC was equally beneficial for both male and female Veterans.

After learning mindfulness and self-compassion, the Veterans in this study experienced fewer interferences with their activities due to pain. In fact, they reported significant reductions in use of pain medications. Lead researcher and MSC teacher, Serpa shares his surprise and enthusiasm for this remarkable finding.

“We never discussed decreasing or changing medication use in the curriculum. It appears, however, that teaching Veterans to meet their suffering with a kind heart, had an impact on medication use.

Our treatment system has medicalized pain management and then blamed and marginalized those who suffer for seeking the very thing our system has trained them to see as their best path for relief. Humans have used compassion to alleviate suffering for millennia. Isn’t it time to support those who are suffering with compassion training?”

Serpa further reflects on the importance of being able to help Veterans “meet their suffering with kindness and grace.” Self-compassion is often misconstrued as “too soft” he says, but through his research he has witnessed Veterans leave the program feeling profound shifts in their life. He shares a response from one Veteran who told him through tears, “Doc, you didn’t recognize this for what it was because you didn’t need it. Look at me. Look at my life now. I really needed this. I wouldn’t make it without this.”

Similarly, feedback from this study illustrates participants’ appreciation for the resources and skills MSC taught them. For example, one person shared, “This class has changed my life forever. Everyone I come in contact with notices the peace, calm and compassion I share with the world.”

It seems that giving Veterans the opportunity to cultivate a compassionate relationship with themselves provided them with a healthier way to relate to their pain, which may have increased their capacity to experience more fulfillment and joy in their lives. One participant shared about how this class has “given [them] the tools to help get unstuck and move forward in challenging times.” Serpa and his colleagues identify the need to conduct further research to strengthen their compelling findings by including a comparison group; however, based on the self-report surveys and qualitative feedback, the data appears to clearly demonstrate the value of offering MSC to Veterans to enhance their health and enrich their lives.

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