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Can Gratitude Actually Change Physical Pain?

Man in front of the sky with eyes closed
Photo by Kelvin Valerio

It’s November, and you know what that means: the season of gratitude is upon us.

This is the time of year that health and wellness experts will be assuring you that keeping a gratitude journal will solve all your health problems and make you happy.

While the psychological benefits of feeling thankful on a daily basis may be intuitive, I wouldn't blame you if you told me you felt a smidgen skeptical that gratitude could actually relieve your physical pain.

And yet, research is pointing us toward gratitude as beneficial for both mental health and physical health, including pain.

What Science Says About Gratitude

The benefits of gratitude for mental health are well-documented by science. Here are a few you may have heard about:

  • Less stress

  • Decreased depression and anxiety

  • More life satisfaction

  • Increased self-esteem

  • Stronger social connections

But gratitude doesn’t just make you a happier, nicer person; science shows that it changes you physically, too.

People who practice gratitude have:

The evidence is there, but WHY would taking a moment to express thanks for something positive bring any relief to your never-ending pain?

It starts with understanding the mechanisms human beings use to navigate and survive in the world.

The Negativity Bias and Pain

Why We Have Them

Think back to a time you did something that you were proud of and 10 people told you how great you did and 1 person criticized you.

Which of those 11 comments left the biggest impression on you?

If you’re like most people, the negative feedback stands out more than all of the positive feedback put together. We might generally remember that we received some praise. In contrast, we may be able to recall, years later, the precise moment we received criticism, the exact words that were used, and the feeling they gave us.

Scientists have studied the seemingly universal phenomenon of being more affected by negative information and experiences than positive ones. They call it the ‘negativity bias’.

It’s posited that this tendency to notice and remember negativity is a function of survival, helping us stay safe from danger.

For example, remembering that we got sick after eating a certain food helps us know that that food may be poisonous or that we may be allergic to it. The enhanced ability to recall the unpleasant experience of getting sick helps keep us from making the same mistake in the future.

Similarly, remembering negative verbal feedback from someone in your community can help you learn what is valuable to the group. Knowing the values of the group can help you gain acceptance and belonging within your community.

Pain works much in the same way, getting you (and keeping you) out of danger’s way.

For example, if you’re lifting a piece of furniture that’s too heavy for you, you may strain your back muscles, injuring your back. The pain you feel in the moment will motivate you to put the piece of furniture down, keeping you from injuring yourself further. The next day you may still feel pain, even if you aren’t lifting anything heavy. The pain keeps you from moving around too much, giving your muscles a chance to heal.

The brain may store this experience away, so that it can use it in the future, helping you identify potentially dangerous situations so you can take proper action to avoid injury. You may even find that the next time you try lifting something heavy, you feel pain more readily, even if it seems unlikely that what you’re doing would cause injury.

When Protection Hurts Us

While the negativity bias and the pain alarm system excel at helping us to survive, each can play a role in inhibiting our ability to thrive.

It turns out there is such a thing as too much protection.

When we focus too much on negative information, we have a greater propensity for:

  • Catastrophizing

  • Ruminating

  • Assuming the worst about ourselves

  • Assuming the worst about others

When your pain alarm system becomes overly sensitive, pain persists and becomes chronic. Research shows that the longer pain lasts, the less it correlates with the actual state of your tissues. This means that you can have very real physical pain, even when there is no structural damage to your body.

Besides being very uncomfortable, chronic pain can have many far-reaching consequences for your life:

  • Inhibiting your ability to participate in and contribute to society

  • Affecting your relationships with others

  • Changing your perception of self-worth

When the negativity balance and the pain alarm system become too responsive to potential danger, they may hurt us just as much as they protect us.

But even if we find ourselves being overprotected by the negativity bias, the pain alarm system, or both, we do have the power to shift our reality in a positive direction.

How Gratitude Helps

The beautiful thing about gratitude is that it does not deny that negative things happen and that danger is real.

Rather, gratitude brings balance to our perception by helping us remember that there’s actually a great deal of positivity and safety in our lives as well.

When we express gratitude, the brain releases the “happy hormones” dopamine and serotonin. These help us to have positive experiences by making us feel pleasure and giving us a sense that all is right in the world.

Not only does remembering the positive, non-dangerous aspects of life make our day more pleasant, it also has implications for pain.

The Boulder Back Pain study has shown that reducing fear surrounding pain (which is to say, decreasing the perception of danger and increasing the perception of safety) diminishes the pain itself.

Pain is also influenced by factors that are not related to damage in the body, such as mental and emotional stressors. Research suggests that gratitude can positively impact such factors that affect pain, including depression, anxiety, and sleep disturbance.

Thus, increasing a general sense of safety, the way expressing gratitude does, may also contribute to a reduction in pain.

The Takeaway

A gratitude practice has great potential to change your life for the better, including changing your pain. This is why gratitude may be a helpful addition to a multi-pronged approach to pain care.

If you're considering starting your own gratitude practice, read How to Cultivate Joy with Gratitude to get you started.

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