Mild pain: what is it and what it is used for

What if you were told that self-inflicted pain can actually be an effective coping mechanism to reduce negative or unpleasant emotions? Sounds a little weird, doesn’t it? This is what a recent study by researcher Ashley Doukas and colleagues (2019), published in the journal Emotion, suggests.

In this article, we will see in detail what this research consisted of, what were its results and conclusions, and also what to say about mild pain (This type of pain, we will explain) a previous experience.

    What is mild pain?

    A new study, from 2019, published in the journal Emotion and led by Ashely Doukas, suggests that this type of pain participates in the regulation of our emotions.

    So, according to this study, mild pain is a type of physical pain, which could help us reduce anxiety and other psychological symptoms. It would therefore be a strategy for regulating emotions.

    But what do we mean by mild pain (still according to this study)? We are referring to some of the psychological phenomena that underlie it non-suicidal self-harm behaviors (In English NSSI). These behaviors are generally practiced by people with a type of mental disorder (ex: anorexia, depression … However, according to this study which speaks of benign pain, these behaviors are also developed by a part of the population which does not suffer from no mental disorder.

    The why of these behaviors? It has always been thought that these people (those who have some sort of mental disorder) do these acts because they want some kind of pain that prevents them from feeling the emotional pain that they are suffering, which is why they cause this pain. classified as mild pain. .

    However, the research we are talking about suggests that beyond this reason, there is the following: regulate extreme emotional states. This statement is supported by study author Ashley Doukas.

    Thus, as observed in this research, there would be a part of the healthy population (the “control” group) which would use this mild pain to counter certain negative emotions. This mild pain is not always caused by oneself, and it may also include sensations of cold, heat or harmless pressure (As used in the experiment). Specifically, this group reported a reduction in negative emotions after receiving a stimulus of a painful nature.

    What did the experiment consist of?

    In the research, we told you about who tried to explain why mild pain, the researchers did the following: they exposed 60 participants to disturbing images, and they were offered two types of cognitive strategies, as well as two physical strategies, to deal with negative emotions produced by these images.

    Participants were told that they could reduce this negative emotion in a number of ways:

    • Think of a different picture.
    • Change the meaning of the image in your mind.
    • Self-administer a painful shock.
    • Self-administered painless electrical stimulation.


    The results of research on mild pain are as follows: 67.5% of participants chose, at least once, to self-administer pain shock.

    16 trials were conducted, and in these, participants chose pain shock between 0 and 13 times (on average 2 times per participant). The participants themselves described the pain stimulation strategy as effective as the others, in order to regulate the anxiety experienced by seeing the unpleasant images.


      Ashley Doukas, the author of the study, hopes, based on these findings, that people who engage in this type of self-injurious behavior will be stigmatized because, According to her, mild pain is another way to regulate negative emotions. From this point of view, it is true that there are self-destructive behaviors which are very harmful to oneself, but there are others, led by a group, which hide behind a “good intention”, and it is oneself. regulation.

      This study may seem a little bizarre to us: who can say that self-harm is a good thing? But we don’t have to stick to the superficial part; what Doukas suggests, with his research, is that there are some very negative self-injurious behaviors, of course, but there are others that might not be so bad, because in reality pain that is caused is not to hurt oneself, but to regulate an unpleasant internal state, as a mechanism for self-confrontation.

      Doukas, in his study, suggests that we think of when people receive intense massages, which “hurt” but at the same time are pleasant, or when we put spicy sauce on our tacos. In these situations, we cause “mild pain”.

      other research

      In previous research, the procedure was as follows: Experiment participants were exposed to sitting alone in an empty room for 10 minutes.

      They were ordered not to sleep, read or use their cell phones. But they were entitled to one thing: self-administer, as often as desired, painful or painless electrical stimulation.

      What happened in this experience? The results showed how 60% of participants decided to self-administer, at least once, the painful electrical stimulus. How many times has the stimulation been given? That number ranged from 0 to 69, with an average of 13, which is a lot.

      In other words, they would rather feel pain than be bored. As in the previous experience, mild pain, in this case, acted as a self-regulatory strategy to reduce negative emotions, as it would with boredom.

      Healthy pain?

      Following the research explained, one may wonder (as Doukas did)Where are the lines between “healthy” pain and “unhealthy” pain?

      According to her, not so much in the pain itself, but in the mechanism of production of this pain; it is not the same thing to make a cut to give a play on words, for example. So, maybe the limit is in how to break through that pain.

      Its importance in the face of self-injurious behavior

      Ashley Doukas insists mild pain is in nonclinical populations, And therefore does not fail to give the importance it deserves to self-injurious behaviors in patients with certain mental illnesses, because these are very serious cases. But it differentiates it; they are not the same actions and do not have the same goal.

      Doukas aims, through his research and future research to study mild pain, to expand treatment options for people with self-injurious behaviors. The goal is that they can use healthier mechanisms and, for example, instead of burning or cutting their skin, they can use some kind of non-harmful electrical stimulation.

      Doukas speaks, to make these treatments possible, of TENS (electrical stimulation devices), devices often used in physiotherapy. The author encourages the removal of stigma and the openness of the mind, especially to health and mental health professionals.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Doukas, AM, D’Andrea, WM, Gregory, WE, Joachim, B., Lee, KA, Robinson, G., Freed, SJ, Khedari-DePierro, V., Pfeffer, KA, Todman, M. and Siegle, GJ (2019). Very bad: pain as a strategy for regulating emotions. Emotion. Advance online publication.

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