Expecting pain and hyping it could make it feel worse, and playing it down has been found to reduce the actual perception of a physically painful event. A person waiting in line to get an injection, for example, might feel the pain to be less severe if they are able to stay calm and reduce anxiety, but if they are anxious about it, they might end up feeling a lot more pain.
A study carried out by psychologists from the University of California along with researchers from the National Institutes of Health carried out this study on children to see if their expectation of pain actually influenced their experience of the pain.
Reduce pain by expecting it
The study stemmed from the fact that children are highly impressionable and are easily influenced by social media, television, and even their friends, say the researchers. This fact, however, has not really been studied in a systematic manner in the same way expectations and their effects have been studied in adults.
"We suspected that if children expected pain, that's how they would perceive it. We designed an experiment to test it," writes Kalina Michalska, author of the paper. Through the study, the goal was to try to help prepare children for paediatric procedures that are going to be painful.
For this study, researchers applied a certain amount of heat to each child's arm and asked them to rate the pain on the scale of low, medium, and high. The temperatures that each child said was medium was then recorded. The study used only the medium pain temperature for the study.
The study progressed into the expectations phase by playing two kinds of tones, say the researchers. One of the tones signalled that the child was about to receive a gently low heat, one said that there was intense, high heat coming.
When asked, the children responded by saying that the heat that was preceded by the painful tone hurt them more than the one that came after the soothing tone.
What does this mean?
"Our findings suggest that parents will reduce their child's suffering by downplaying the upcoming painful experience," said Michalska. The researchers suggest that parents could reframe their kids' thoughts by not completely rubbishing their feelings of pain or be dismissive about what they are about to feel before going to the doctor's.
Rather, downplay it by saying that it is likely to hurt only as much as an accidental nip from the family pet or a small scratch from a kitten. Lying that there will be no pain before an injection is not encouraged, say the researchers.