Can happiness override pain?

I have always pondered if happiness does indeed override other sensations and emotions in the body. Today I am going to explore what research is saying about happiness in relation to the experience of pain.

By now you have probably been to one of my talks on explaining pain; or perhaps you have looked up the likes of Lorimer Mosley and David Butler (their website is www.noigroup.com) some of my favourite people at the forefront of pain research. If so you are beginning to understand that pain is an experience controlled by our brains and is therefore not always the indication of tissue damage in the body, this is a important component of how happiness can relate to pain. If pain is travelling along certain pathways that are shared by other emotions and sensations (via neural and chemical reactions) then what does science have to say about trying to override pain with happiness and other feel good emotions or sensations?

Turns out, this is a huge area of study and it can be looked at from many different angles. Several studies however; have shown correlation between subjective happiness and decreased pain, (Click here to see list of studies) so for the purpose of today’s discussion I am going to explore it from this particular angle.

When you think about this more deeply, happiness = decreased pain, there could be more going on. Lets explain this a little more. Someone who is sad or depressed is less likely to socialise and less likely to exercise among other things. Research absolutely shows exercise is great for lowering pain levels and socilaisation can be a great distraction tool, so this could account for some of the pain relief felt, not just happiness.

However if we look at pain cycles such as the one found at www.paintoolkit.org we see that there are many factors that interplay with peoples pain, and sometimes being able to break things along that pathway can be more effective on reducing pain than directly trying to attack the pain problem itself.

For example; if you are not sleeping, getting depressed and not getting exercise anymore because of pain (for this example lets also say that you have chronic pain and no longer have any tissue damage in your body) by fixing one of those factors sleep, depression or exercise; this can be enough to break the negative feedback loop impacting on the perpetuation of pain. And when we consider the above correlation found between happiness and decreased pain we can see how this all might start to link together.

Exercise releases endorphins among other things that make us feel good which in turn could easily lead to increased happiness and decreased pain at the same time. Getting a good nights sleep can make a world of difference to a persons mood and also promotes healing mentally and physically. And if depression is a problem in the loop and that person is able to get counselling or help through medication again all the things that were negatively impacted from the depression improve and therefore also decrease pain.

Hopefully the process is starting to sound a bit simpler to you, let me simplify it in another way, cause I really want you to understand this. You have pain. You have a host of other troubles that go along with the pain. No matter what you try in terms of ‘fixing’ the pain, nothing is working. You decide to take a new approach, you stop trying to ‘fix’ the pain and instead you try to fix one of the other factors that has been bothering you. You are able to fix this thing because it is more attainable and in turn you pain starts to reduce. You try attacking another thing on the negative feedback loop, again your pain reduces even more!

So while correlation does not = causation, we have certainly shown a few different ways how subjective happiness can indeed = a reduction in pain. And the research backs up this approach of tackling other problems around pain rather than focusing on the pain itself, please make sure you check out www.paintoolkit.org and www.noigroup.com as well as typing in ‘explain pain’ to YouTube. Education is a key component to beating chronic pain.

I challenge you, right now to go do something that will make you happy and report back how it made you feel. Even if you pain didn’t completely resolve, I’m sure you felt good doing something that made you happy! Feel free to share you experiences with us below.

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