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Research Explores Links Between Physical and Emotional Pain Relief

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Though we all desire relief — from stress, work, or pain — little is known about the specific emotions underlying relief. New research from the Association for Psychological Science explores the psychological mechanisms associated with relief that occurs after the removal of pain, also known as pain offset relief.

This new research shows that healthy individuals and individuals with a history of self-harm display similar levels of relief when pain is removed, which suggests that pain offset relief may be a natural mechanism that helps us to regulate our emotions.

Feeling Worse to Feel Better: Pain-Offset Relief Simultaneously Stimulates Positive Affect and Reduces Negative Affect

Joseph Franklin, Kent Lee, Eleanor Hanna, and Mitchell Prinstein

Research shows that feeling pain leads to negative emotions, but less is known about the relief that occurs when pain is removed. Is pain offset associated with positive emotions, or simply the alleviation of negative emotions?

Franklin and colleagues used recording electrodes to measure participants’ negative emotions (eyeblink startle response) and positive emotions (muscle activity behind the ear) in response to loud noises; sometimes the loud noise was presented alone and other times it was presented 3.5, 6, or 14 seconds after receiving a low- or high-intensity shock.

Participants showed increased positive emotions and decreased negative emotions after pain offset. The greatest increases in positive emotion tended to occur soon after high-intensity shocks, whereas the greatest decreases in negative emotions tended to occur soon after low-intensity shocks.

These findings shed light on the emotional nature of pain offset relief, and could provide insight into why some people seek relief through self-injurious behavior.

Published in Psychological Science

The Nature of Pain Offset Relief in Nonsuicidal Self-Injury: A Laboratory Study

Joseph C. Franklin, Megan E. Puzia, Kent M. Lee, Grace E. Lee, Eleanor K. Hanna, Victoria L. Spring, and Mitchell J. Prinstein

In this study, the researchers examined whether the emotional relief that comes with physical pain removal might be a potential mechanism that could help to explain why some people engage in self-harm behaviors.

Participants with or without a history of self-harm were assessed for emotion dysregulation and reactivity, self-injurious behavior, and for psychiatric disorders. Using a similar recording electrode procedure as in the first study, Franklin and colleagues were able to measure positive and negative emotions in response to loud noises, either alone or after receiving a painful shock.

Surprisingly, healthy individuals displayed pain offset relief levels that were comparable to those of individuals with a history of self-harm, and there was no correlation between pain offset relief and self-harm frequency.

These results do not support the hypothesis that heightened pain offset relief is a risk factor for future self-injury. Instead, Franklin and colleagues speculate that the biggest risk factors for nonsuicidal self-injury may concern how some people overcome the instinctive barriers that keep most people from inflicting self-harm.

Published in Clinical Psychological Science