Almost everyone has been in a stressful social situation‒ tripping in the quad, running into a new friend and immediately forgetting their name, getting called on in class when you don’t know the answer, or even just finding yourself alone at lunch time in a room full of people. All these experiences can cause social distress. Many people would call those types of situations “painful”, and the authors of a recent study published in the Clinical Journal of Pain would agree. The human body is full of neural pathways, which help connect the different parts of our nervous system, most of which send signals to our brains. The specific neural pathways in our bodies that cause us to feel socially stressed are also involved in the pathways of physical pain.
The specific neural pathways in our bodies that cause us to feel socially stressed are also involved in the pathways of physical pain.
A recent study in the Clinical Journal of Pain conducted by Canaipa and colleagues aimed to discover how social distress can affect and be affected by physical pain and discomfort. Since humans are inherently social creatures, it makes sense that we fear the loss of social connections, since our survival depends on it. In fact, how we experience social distress is strongly tied to how we perceive pain. In order to examine this connection, pain and discomfort levels were assessed before and after an induced socially distressing situation.
All participants of the study were tested for their tolerance of pain and discomfort at the beginning of the study to create a baseline. The baseline was determined by the application of noxious electrical stimuli, which means that the participants were shocked enough to experience discomfort and pain, and their responses were monitored. Social distress was then simulated by a game called “Cyberball, a virtual ball tossing game.” The sixty participants were randomly divided into three groups during play: inclusion, non-inclusion, and exclusion, similar to the way middle school kids self-divide during gym class. People in the “inclusion” group were tossed the ball frequently, the “non-inclusion” group rarely received the ball, and those in the “exclusion” group were not passed to at all.
After the game, all participants’ pain and discomfort tolerances were tested again to see how, if at all, the game had affected them. Psychological characteristics were also measured with a questionnaire titled “Experiences in Close Relationships” and the questionnaire answers were compared to the Big Five Inventory. The Big Five Inventory measures the 5 main dimensions of personality: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness to experience, and neuroticism. This particular study focused on the results from the “neuroticism vs. emotional stability” subsection, which shed light on each participant’s overall psychological state with regards to social stressors.
Remarkably, the participants who felt discomfort easier than others before the game felt more distress during Cyberball than those with higher thresholds. In other words, people who feel physical discomfort more easily are more likely to experience social distress and anxiety than an individual with a higher tolerance for physical discomfort. In this way, people can be seen as being predisposed to social distress, based on their tolerance for physical discomfort. This has a loose correlation to our social hierarchy, especially in young adults, in that weaker teenagers are more likely to feel pain and discomfort than stronger teenagers. The finding further relates to the idea that having a low tolerance for physical unpleasantness could mean feeling higher levels of social distress. One thing the authors failed to address from this stage of the study was whether or not the stress induced before the game affected the player’s overall stress level during play. Further studies with the elimination of this potential variable should be conducted to obtain a more accurate response.
In this way, people can be seen as being predisposed to social distress, based on their tolerance for physical discomfort.
Unfortunately, no correlation was found between overall psychological state (as measured by the questionnaire) and the effects of the game. The lack of correlation is probably due to the fact that one instance of social distress is not enough to alter a person’s psychological state. Additionally, Canaipa and colleagues discovered that there was no direct negative effect of Cyberball on unpleasantness levels in the inclusion group. Overall unpleasantness tolerance in all groups was relatively unaffected after the game. This was surprising, considering that unpleasantness and pain are very closely related; further research is necessary to understand why this is.
The participants who felt included during the game had a higher pain endurance after the game than those who were in the non-inclusion and exclusion groups.
What was more interesting in this study was how social distress caused by the game affected pain tolerance levels afterwards. The participants who felt included during the game had a higher pain endurance after the game than those who were in the non-inclusion and exclusion groups. The important finding of this study is that social distress can lower a person’s ability to deal with pain, but not necessarily discomfort, showing that pain and social distress are more closely related than previously assumed. Put more positively, social support can help with a person’s tolerance to pain. So what does this mean for us in our current society? A little inclusion, like inviting the lost-looking freshman to sit with you at lunch, can go a long way in changing a person’s pain tolerance.
Canaipa, R., Treister, R., Magdalena, L., Moreira, J.M., Castro-Caldas, A. (2016). Feeling Hurt: Pain Sensitivity is Correlated With and Modulated by Social Distress. The Clinical Journal of Pain, 32(1), 14-19.