The first study I will write about is one that profoundly inspired me to start this project in the first place. While working on my thesis, I had the privilege to work with several ground-breaking studies regarding chronic pain and our mind's ability to reduce it or eliminate it. There were many times in which I felt both thrilled due to the promising advances in science, and sad due to the distance between these findings and most people's lives, which inspired me to create The Considerable Journal. I recall this investigation really made me feel this need to bring science closer to people, due to its potential to improve lives. This research was conducted in 2013 and still almost no one with chronic pain knows about its findings, and they still seem revolutionary.
Hanssen and her colleagues sought to study how optimism affects pain. In previous studies, the relationship between higher levels of optimism and lower levels of pain had been established. However, the causality of this relationship (which of the two came first) was unknown prior to this study. It would make sense to think that if someone has more pain, they have less optimism. Or would optimism indeed reduce pain? This investigation sought to determine this causality by testing the effect of optimism in experimentally-induced pain--- meaning pain that was artificially induced and new to the participants.
Seventy-nine university students participated in this investigation after signing an informed consent. To ensure there weren't baseline differences in optimism between the participants, their level of optimism was measured prior to the experiment. The students were randomly assigned to either the control group or the experimental group. All of the students participated in a cold pressor task, that consisted of a very cold bath in which they would place their hands for a short period of time. This was the way to test the differing levels of pain for the same stimulus. Prior to the cold pressor task, the participants in the experimental group underwent a "best possible self" writing a visualization exercise that has been proven to induce a state of optimism. In this exercise, the participants were asked to visualize a positive future and think of their best possible selves. Participants in the control group underwent a typical day writing exercise (unrelated to optimism).
The hypothesis these researchers had was that the participants who underwent the best possible self exercise would report less pain than the participants who underwent the neutral writing exercise.
They were right.
After completing the different writing exercises, all the participants underwent the cold pressor task. They were later asked: "How much pain do you expect during the cold pressor task?" on a scale ranging from 0 = no pain at all to 100 = extreme pain.
The mean scores of reported pain intensity were systematically lower in the participants who underwent the "Best Possible Self" optimistic exercise compared to the participants in the control group who underwent the neutral writing exercise.
These results are meaningful for people with chronic pain. While more research is needed about the effect of optimism on non-experimentally induced pain, such as chronic pain, these results are yet another example of our mind's power to regulate pain. They are consistent with the numerous findings regarding the prejudicial effect of catastrophic thoughts in chronic pain, which could be understood of the opposite of optimism. These researchers studied the other side of that same coin, and the results indicate the same thing: we must not underestimate the influence of our emotions and thoughts in pain. Negative thoughts and emotions seem to lead to worse levels of pain, while positive ones seem to have the power to significantly reduce it. Nourishing optimistic thoughts and feelings through a positive visualization exercise such as the one used in this investigation could prove helpful for people with chronic pain.
Hanssen, M. M., Peters, M. L., Vlaeyen, J. W. S., Meevissen, Y. M. C., & Vancleef, L. M. G. (2013). Optimism lowers pain: evidence of the causal status and underlying mechanisms. Pain, 154(1), 53-58. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pain.2012.08.006
Article written by Maggie Stilman.
The Considerable Journal.
The Considerable Journal's mission is to bring relevant scientific findings closer to people who seek evidence-based paths to integral well-being, by providing briefed, straightforward expositions of scientific research regarding mental and physical health, relationships, habits, and more.