Dr. Siri Leknes, Research Fellow at the Department of Psychology at the University of Oslo set out to understand the “it could have been worse phenomenon” regarding pain. She wondered if the experience of pain was affected by a feeling of relief when a person realized it was not as bad as expected. In fact, her research suggested that for some people, when something caused less pain than expected, the sensation was agreeable. “It is not hard to understand that pain can be interpreted as less severe when an individual is aware that it could have been much more painful. Less expected, however, is the discovery that pain may be experienced as pleasant if something worse is avoided” said Leknes.

If you accidentally kicked your toe against a doorframe, it would most likely be quite painful. However, if you imagined purposefully kicking a doorframe hard enough to break your toe, yet your toe has not broken, the pain may be perceived more as relief. The researchers found that where moderate pain was the worst alternative, the pain felt was unpleasant. In the instances where the moderate pain was the best alternative, the participants felt the moderate pain as positive – even comforting. Liknes said “the likely explanation is that the subjects were prepared for the worst, and thus felt relieved when they realized the pain was not going to be as bad as they had feared.” She pointed out that exposure to the same stimulus was interpreted very differently among people, and that the experience was related to expectation and context.

While Dr. Leknes called her pain research “basic” she and her team hope that this knowledge can one day be applied to developing improved methods for treating pain. She believes that relief is also an essential factor in substance abuse. “By studying relief in order to understand how this process works, we can come up with new ideas for treating substance dependence more effectively. From our pain research, we know that the relief mechanisms in the brains of patients with chronic pain become disrupted. This may be something shared by patients suffering from pain and alcohol and drug addiction alike,” she said…….. Medical News Today 3/3/13

 

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