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Seeing Through Pain

Argues that stoic attempts to stifle awareness of physical pain may actually prolong discomfort. Problems associated with distracting attention from a painful situation; Details of a study published in the 'Journal of Personality and Social Psychology'; Additional data.

The expression "no pain, no gain" may take on a whole new meaning it two psychologists have their way. Stoic attempts to stifle awareness of physical pain may actually prolong discomfort. What's more, distracting attention from a painful situation probably won't work either.

In fact, the only solution may be to monitor painful feelings as they occur, report Delia Cioffi, Ph.D., of Dartmouth College, and James Holloway, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina. This takes the emotion out of negative sensations and provides useful feed back for coping.

Sixty-three students who dipped their hands in ice-cold water were given one of three sets of instructions: either distract themselves by thinking of their room at home, pay close attention to what their hands were feeling, or suppress all awareness of their hands' sensations. When the pain became intolerable, the students removed their hands and then rated their ability to tolerate the dip.

Subjects who suppressed their sensations of pain recovered from their discomfort more slowly than people who distracted themselves, Cioffi and Holloway found. Students who monitored their feelings recovered the most rapidly.

What's happening? People given the specific goal ad to think about something may actually find themselves mentally "glancing at" or scanning the forbidden, negative thought more frequently, so the discomfort takes on "a particular salience," the authors report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 64, No. 2). Meanwhile, people who try to distract themselves by visualizing one very concrete image increase the likelihood that, just for an instant, their thoughts may wander inadvertently into the seductive territory of pain sensation.

The kicker is suppressors actually experience a later rebound effect of pain. During a subsequent experiment, they found even innocuous sensations unpleasant, setting off a vicious cycle in which pain is perceived to grow worse.

So, how do you spell relief? T-H-I-N-K P-A-I-N.