Acceptance Can Reduce Momentary Pain

Embracing the pain might be make the pain less painful.

That’s more or less the takeaway from a new study, detailed in a paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

In the study, researchers attached thermodes, or devices that can be used to apply varying levels of temperature, to participants’ arms. The thermodes were calibrated to individual participants’ pain thresholds so the researchers could induce levels of heat that were painful (but not dangerously so).

So why did the researchers go through this process? Are they just evil scientists who enjoy subjecting study participants to painful levels of heat?

In fact, they wanted to test whether acceptance can help reduce the intensity of pain.

The researchers explored this idea by asking study participants either to “welcome and experience pain” or to “react to the pain as it is.”

The participants who were instructed to accept and embrace the pain showed a range of indications that their pain was, well, less painful.

To start with, they had lower heart rates on average when exposed to painful levels of heat. That physiological data lined up with their subjective experiences: they described the pain as less unpleasant and intense than the participants who weren’t instructed to use the acceptance-based strategy.

Those results suggest that leaning into pain rather than away from it can mute some of the pain’s effects.

A caveat is that the experiment only examined one type of pain, so it’s not clear whether the same results would apply for more long-lasting or severe types of pain. For obvious ethical reasons, psychology researchers cannot do experiments where they intentionally induce chronic pain or dangerously high levels of pain in study participants.

Still, acceptance is one of those coping strategies that seems to work in a variety of contexts. It seems to help in dealing with negative emotions, and the latest study suggests that it might help with unpleasant physical experiences as well.