Pain as a Positive Practice?

March 27, 2014

By: Camille Piner

It felt weird to be listening to a talk all about pain at a POS function. My immediate reaction to Afton Hassett’s research about pain was, “Shouldn’t we be focusing on the opposite of pain–pleasure–instead?” However, Hasset explained that chronic pain is an extremely pervasive phenomenon, and actually affects more people than heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer combined. She asked the audience to raise their hand if they knew someone affected by chronic pain, and nearly every person raised their hand. Ok, so pain is pervasive and relevant–I’m listening.

Hassett introduced a super cheery study conducted by Ethan Kross involving students that had recently broken up with their significant other. He learned that the brain’s reaction to the emotional pain triggered by a picture of an ex (ouch) was similar to the brain’s response to physical pain. So not only is it confusing to determine when we have pain or not, the different kinds of pain we feel are difficult to distinguish. This study proved interesting to me for multiple reasons: Ethan Kross was my social psychology professor at the University of Michigan, so I felt a personal connection to his research, and his findings suggest that Hassett’s work on chronic physical pain could be applied to emotional pain as well. This emotional pain piece was what I latched on to the most, and as a soon-to-be-graduating college senior, I predict this may be extremely relevant to many of my peers on campus as well. In a pivotal life stage such as this, what can we do to stay motivated?

The nagging POS voice inside me finally quieted down when Hassett highlighted the importance of resilience. Her passion is to help individuals who suffer from pain get to the point where they become resilient and can do great things despite their pain. She noted a few institutional changes that can be implemented to promote resilience among patients, such as a healing hospital environment, asking questions focusing on patients’ comfort over their pain, and cognitive behavioral therapy. However, she emphasized that the culture that we create is the most important way to get there.

How can we create a culture that both validates and relieves people’s pain? Hassett pointed to a study of couples in relationships. When shown a picture of their significant other, a higher tolerance of pain was reported in the participating individual. This may only be generalizable to the point that romantic relationships can provide a source of social support during difficult times, but I predict that if you showed me a picture of my best friend, Maggy, my pain tolerance would go up as well. After going through a recent breakup with my long-term boyfriend, struggling to find a job, and somewhere to live, along with other various senior-year college student challenges, I feel that I’ve been able to find resilience, and not without Maggy’s help. When I have something to share with her, good or bad, I know she will support me. When it’s good news, she responds with as much excitement as if it were her own celebration. If it’s bad, she acknowledges and sympathizes with my feelings, and makes it known that she’s there to talk.

I am grateful to have someone like Maggy in my life, and I see the benefit that comes with surrounding myself with people who support me. Whether you are a graduating undergrad, MBA, or not, we all experience tough stages that cause emotional pain. How can you set yourself up to be resilient? Are there certain people or contexts that allow you to thrive? And how can we find them and keep them?