Growing pains. No pain, no gain. A pain in the neck. No matter how you say it, pain hurts. But being able to feel pain is vital to our survival; that’s why we have millions of pain receptors all over our bodies. Pain helps us learn to avoid what can hurt us. It also alerts us to conditions that may need medical treatment.

The intensity of our pain experience, however, is highly subjective. One person’s scream of agony can be another’s, “Geez…what was that?” As noted by Drs. Steven J. Linton and William S. Shaw in Physical Therapy, the journal of the American Physical Therapy Association, “The experience of pain is shaped by a host of psychological factors.”

Here are 6 of these factors that affect our “Ouch!” ratings:

  1. Attention…Paying too much attention to a painful stimulus can heighten its intensity.
  2. Expectations…One’s encounter with a specific source of discomfort can dramatically affect the reaction to the same exposure in the future. An inflated expectation can override feedback from pain receptors, turning what should be a mild pain into a severe one.
  3. Interpretation…How we assess a pain varies according to the context. Someone who had previously suffered a heart attack, for example, may fixate on an irrelevant muscle twitch in his chest and blow it out of proportion.
  4. Context…A rugby player who is caught up in the excitement of a game may barely notice the pain of getting tackled on the playing field. A person getting thrown to the floor in his living room is bound to have a different sensation.
  5. Emotions…Fear, anxiety, depression, and general distress can elevate pain intensity. People with depression, for example, are more likely to seek medical treatment for pain.
  6. Coping strategies…There are a number of ways other than medicine that can help reduce the burden of chronic pain, including distraction, biofeedback, visualization, and positive affirmations.

Pain Sensation Differs Between Right and Left

6 Psychological Factors Affecting How We Feel Pain
The Brain Just Says No to Pain
The brain has no pain receptors, so it can’t experience discomfort. We don’t feel a headache in our brain tissue; we are feeling changes in blood vessels inside the brain or tension in muscles outside it.

The adolescent code in the neighborhood where I grew up declared you a wimp if you wore gloves or a hat during snowball fights. While preparing my frozen ammo, I always noticed that my right hand could stand the cold better than my left. This was no oddity; research published in Neuroscience Letters demonstrates that right-handers can tolerate more pain in their right hands than their left. This is due in part to how the body is managed by the brain. The right side of our bodies is controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain. The left side is controlled by the right hemisphere, which has more pain sensitivity than the left. So where you feel the pain affects your perception of it.

6 Psychological Factors Affecting How We Feel Pain
Have Red Hair? Ouch!
A study in the Journal of the American Dental Association reported that redheads had greater pain sensitivity and required more anesthesia for dental procedures than non-redheads. This may be due to a mutation in a gene that makes hair red that is in the same gene family as pain receptors.

Since I’m a righty, my right hand also has more of a history of exposure to various stimuli than my left. This means I have a more realistic expectation of what something will feel like when I touch it, reducing the surprise factor that can make a pain seem more extreme.

The “ouch factor” is clearly a tricky business. Being aware of the psychological issues affecting our reactions can give us a more a realistic experience of pain. But remember that pain is often not simply a state of mind. It may be an important message or warning about injury or illness that should be taken very seriously.

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