Change Your Mind and Change Your Pain: How Your Attitude Towards Pain Can Make it Worse
Not everyone feels pain in the same way. Some people have higher pain tolerances. Others will catastrophize minor pain and make themselves feel it more intensely. In fact, your attitude towards pain may even impact your biology and its ability to relieve pain. But, you don’t need to be a victim of this way of thinking.
Normally, you feel pain when a part of your body is damaged in some way. The damaged parts of your body pass on information about this damage via nerve cells to your spinal cord. The spinal cord then passes this information on to your brain which then produces feelings of pain in order to let you know that you should protect that part of your body. That is, we experience pain in our brains.
Pain is a subjective experience; we all experience it differently and respond to the same pain-inducing events differently as well. Yet, we are not completely at the mercy of the biological processes that produce pain; we can have some control over how much pain we feel and how much it interferes with our lives. That is, there are things you can do to reduce your feelings of pain just by changing where your thoughts go. Further, there are things that you can do, often without knowing, that can worsen your experience of pain.
One method for reducing pain, according to pain researchers, is distracting yourself. Distraction has an analgesic effect. This is something many doctors knew way before researchers began to produce empirical evidence for it (they often try to distract kids from the pain of a shot). Attention modulates pain because your thoughts and attention, and expectations for how something should hurt, can have a tremendous impact on your emotional experience of pain as well as built-in biological mechanisms.
But, according to a study out of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, making mountains out of molehills can degrade the distraction’s ability to make you feel better.
People with a “catastrophizing” attitude, defined by the researchers as people with “a set of negative emotional/cognitive processes such as magnification, rumination, pessimism, and feelings of helplessness when in pain,” actually feel pain more intensely. They found that, after inducing subjects with a “moderate” amount of pain, people who rated high on a scale created to measure for a catastrophic mindset (the Situational Catastrophizing Questionnaire) also tended to rate their pain as more severe than people who score lower on this scale.
Further, they found that although all participants eventually benefited from reduced pain when distracted, it takes catastrophizers longer to start feeling distraction’s analgesic effects. That is, it took catastrophizers about 15 minutes longer on average to start feeling some relief from distraction.
Catastrophizers also believed pain to be more of a hindrance to their ability to do things. Participants were told to play video games as a way to distract themselves from pain while researchers documented both how they felt about their ability to focus on the video game as well as their actual scores. High catastrophizers believed that the pain they felt interfered with their ability to do well on the video game. Their actual scores, however, were not any lower.
In other words, people who catastrophize also believe that pain interferes with their ability to concentrate despite it not having any actual impact on performance. This may extend out into other areas of catastrophizing people’s lives. That is, it’s possible that people with catastrophizing attitudes are more often of the mindset that their pain is a significant roadblock. It’s also not a coincidence that a significant portion of people who suffer from chronic pain without an identifiable injury are people with a catastrophizing attitude. Your attitude towards pain may have a significant impact on the quality of your life.
But, why do catastrophizers take longer to start feeling better from being distracted? There are a few possible explanations. It’s possible that when people catastrophize pain it’s harder form them to become distracted; their attention is on how much it hurts. Or, catastrophizing may interfere with the biological mechanisms in your body that produce pain relief when you’re distracted. It could even be that catastrophizers are just, generally, less able to manage their emotions; they experience all emotions more strongly, including pain.
Whatever the mechanism is, a key takeaway from this research is: how you think about pain determines both how intensely you feel it and how intrusive you believe it to be — which may result in a self-fulfilling prophecy in which it becomes actually intrusive. Learning how not to catastrophize pain is an important part of knowing how to manage pain — as well as so many other aspects of your life.