Tag Archives: psychology

It Hurts So Good

Come on, baby.  Make it hurt so good.
Sometimes problems don’t resolve as they should,
so you gotta make it hurt so good…


And not because the self-inflicted physical pain doesn’t hurt, but because when the physical pain stops, so does emotional pain.  Euphoria sets in like a runner’s high, an intense love-making, lust-maddening session, or a mind-altering substance.

Also known as “pain offset relief,” this phenomenon explains that when a person deliberately hurts themselves in such a way that the integrity of their skin is damaged (like bloodletting or burning), they still register that physical pain as something undesirable, but the moment that physical pain stops, they are filled with intense relief not only because the physical hurt has stopped, but emotional pain has as well.  What’s interesting is that studies done with people who do not deliberately self-injure as a means of coping indicate that they also feel very good after the physical pain has stopped.  Cornell reports the same: pain offset relief appears to be a near- universal phenomenon experienced by nearly all living creatures, not an abnormal psychological or biological feature that predisposes some people to self-injury… Once again, this work indicates that people who engage in self-injury are not “wired differently” to “like pain.” People who engage in self-injury simply tap into a natural and powerful relief mechanism that all people (and other organisms) have access to.

Moreover, according to Cornell, “researchers have discovered that there is a large degree of ‘neural overlap’ between physical pain and emotional pain (in particular, areas called the ‘anterior cingulate cortex’ and the ‘anterior insulsa’).”  Of course I had to turn to Robert M. Sapolsky’s book to see what it has on the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC).  The ACC’s function revolves around processing and recognizing sensory information about your body (is my heart beating really fast? why does my stomach feel weird?) and identifying anomolies in patterns and causality (behavior X yields Y but why not every time?).  Sapolsky notes that “unexpected pain is at the intersection of those two roles of the ACC” and it seriously wants to know what the pain signifies and what can be done to make the pain end (the placebo effect comes into play here) (528, 529).  The ACC’s role in recognizing and wanting to dispel emotional pain facilitates its role in empathy.

A person who is affected by seeing signs of pain in someone else has an activated ACC.  In fact, “the more painful the other person’s situation seems to be, the more ACC activation.  The ACC is also central in doing something to alleviate someone else’s distress” (530).  It also explains why some people can look at other people’s choices and avoid making the same choices if the outcomes are undesirable.  Now I’m wondering if I’ve got a hyperactive ACC because whenever my favorite people are in duress, I feel compelled to do something to help them feel better (or not do what they did to land themselves in whatever world of dismay).

But what does the purpose of the ACC, a highly engaged ACC, have to do with pain offset relief exactly?  My interpretation is that because this part of the frontal cortex has a duty to let you know when some aspect of your existing is amiss or inconsistent, it seeks to and is amenable to any course of action that will make things the way they’re supposed to be, which is homeostasis.  Things aren’t too hot or cold, they’re just right.  You’ve forgotten you have body parts because they don’t hurt.  You feel okay, steady because there’s no reaction to unpleasant stimuli (that would bring about physical or emotional distress or both).


Joyeux Noel le tout!

I hope I’m not the only wong that is so ready for the new year to begin.  No? Okay, fine then, go sit on a bench.

Kidding…about sitting on a bench.  You can just imagine you’re sitting on it.

I was doing some clicking around Psychology Today’s site and came across a couple of good reads, one about unsolicited advice and the other about coping with coping.  The latter clicked profoundly with me since I’ve finally realized I’m ready to let go of some old habits and ways of thinking (–even if I’m mostly alone in this introspective eureka experience).  The last paragraph in the article discusses “positive disintegration,” maybe it’ll ring a few bells for you too.

The term, positive disintegration refers to the shedding of the old part of the personality that has outlived its function and no longer serves us. This flaying off of old coping mechanisms, which are no longer required is indeed, positive. Yet, the uncertainty of the new terrain often invokes discomfort. Learning to embrace that disquiet is essential in the process of positive disintegration. The unfolding of our self-actualizing requires the death knell of some of the primary coping mechanisms as they give way to higher forms of our self. Shifting our identity-breaking free of old, worn out encumbrances-often induces anxiety if not fear. Permitting the disquiet that arises from shifting into the middle is essential into coming into balance in our lives.


Another good one about dealing with people who are intellectually and emotionally disoriented after witnessing changes in you:

What happens when you do something different that threatens the status quo in an important relationship? The other person will make a “countermove” or “Change back!” maneuver to try to re-instate the old pattern and the old you…the process of change goes like this: One person begins to define a stronger, more independent self, or does something that violates the roles and rules of the system. Anxiety rises like steam…

In whatever form they take, countermoves are simply the measure of the amount of anxiety in a system. It’s not that the other person doesn’t love you or want the best for you. Rather, the people who most depend on you to be a certain way may equate change with a potential threat or loss.

Your job is not to prevent the countermove from happening, which is impossible. Nor is it to advise the other person not to react that way. Real courage requires you to sit with the anxiety that change evokes and stay on course when the countermoves start rolling in.