Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Anticipation of Pain

A study done in 1999 by researchers in England and Canada shows how the brain reacts to pain by showing that the fear of pain is worse than the pain itself. Many of us have learned that anticipating physical or emotional pain can actually make the pain worse. People who worry about having panic attacks are almost certain to have them and the more they worry the worse the attacks are. Similarly, waiting in the dentist’s chair for the drilling to begin can be excruciating for some people. Then, the sound of the highspeed drill can send them over the edge.

The researchers built a "pain machine" that could deliver pain to a person without actually causing harm. It might be noted that the head researcher tried the machine on himself before using it with the research subjects.

When a participant was hooked up to the pain machine, a light came on before the pain was delivered. The light-pain combination was delivered randomly so that the person didn’t know when the light would come on. However, the subject did know that when the light came on, the pain was soon to follow.

The scientists monitored brain activity as the light-pain combination was delivered. What they found was that one part of the brain was activated when the light came on and another part when the pain was actually felt. These two brain areas were very close to each other.

The anticipation of pain caused the brain to respond and may prove that the anticipation of pain is worse than the pain itself. This anticipation is often accompanied by automatic physical reactions such as rapid heart beat, muscle tension, rapid breathing and a racing mind. These reactions often makes the pain worse. Studies have shown that if a person relaxes as a response to pain anticipation, the pain is actually less intense.

What makes this even more interesting is that previous research has shown us that we often become aware of something unconsciously before the awareness hits our consciousness. That means there may be times we will "feel" the anticipation of the pain before it happens but do so at a low level of awareness — the "gut level feeling."

The reason certain medications such as narcotics, alcohol and antidepressants seem to reduce pain is not that they act directly on the pain. By reducing awareness of it and damping the sympathetic nervous system, we just don’t feel the pain as badly.

So what can you do if you have a dental appointment coming up? Or maybe you experience anxiety in closed places. You can check out our blogs on stress management.

These skills are excellent tools for managing pain and stress. You may want to begin with the introduction to stress management. The skills you will need to learn are Natural Breathing, Muscle Relaxation and Mind Calming. As with all skills, how well you can do them will depend on well they work. Some people try to use these skills only when they are in a stressful situation. This is too late — sort of like trying to learn how to swim after falling out of the boat.

Practice these skill now, so that when you need them, you can manage your pain more effectively. Doing so will also increase your self-confidence and well-being.

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