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Finding a way to mind your pain.

The dentist's sharp, gleaming tools torment your teeth and gums. Every so often you lean forward, rinse, and spit out a garish, rose-colored fluid. Pay no attention to such slings and arrows of dental hygiene, you think, and perhaps this oral agony will decay faster than your teeth.

Unfortunately, suppressing thoughts of pain - dental or otherwise - may actually prolong physical discomfort, according to a study in the February JOURNAL OF PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY A seemingly paradoxical strategy offers the quickest escape from dental distress: Bravely monitor tooth and gum sensations and concentrate on their location, quality, and intensity,

This approach to pain management takes its inspiration from studies directed by psychologist Daniel M. Wegner of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville showing that people who suppress a particular thought cannot get it out of their minds once they let their guard down.

Delia Cioffi of Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. and James Holloway of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill presented 28 female and 35 male college students with the task of submerging one hand in a container of freezing water for as long as possible, up to four minutes. Recorded messages instructed volunteers to think in one of three ways during the task: Form a vivid, distracting mental picture of their rooms at home, monitor the details of their hand sensations, or suppress all awareness of their hand sensations.

None of the strategies increased pain tolerance, the two psychologists assert. Participants in each group kept their hands in the water for about two minutes and reported considerable discomfort at that point. But over the next two minutes, ratings of hand pain dropped most sharply among those who had monitored hand sensations and most slowly among those who had suppressed the painful sensations.

Moreover, when students then received a gentle vibration on their necks delivered by a massage device, those in the monitoring and distraction groups rated it as "pleasant" while those in the suppression group classed it as "neutral."

Monitoring builds a sense of mental control over a painful event by focusing attention on sensations rather than on "pain" and makes it easier to notice any ebbing of discomfort over time, the researchers theorize. Suppression inevitably fails and undermines feelings of mental control, they contend. Thus, pain feels worse and fuels negative expectations about further sensations, such as a pleasant vibration. Distraction fosters a weaker sense of mental control than monitoring, but it works better than suppression, Cioffi and Holloway hold.
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Title Annotation:research suggests that deliberately suppressing pain worsens it
Publication:Science News
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Mar 6, 1993
Words:416
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