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Pain Thresholds


Explanations > Preferences > Pain Thresholds

Experienced pain | Tolerable pain | Intolerable pain | Forms of pain | Time effects | So what?


We each deal with pain in different ways, although we still have a lot in common. Some of us are highly intolerant to pain of any sort whilst others seem to be able to withstand extreme discomfort.

Experienced pain

If you apply pressure to a single point on person's body, they will at first experience just the pressure and no pain, but at some point it will start to become uncomfortable. This is the threshold of the experience of pain.

Low-level pain is seldom described as pain but as discomfort or irritation of some kind. A physical itch on the body may lead to scratching or rubbing but the person otherwise does not seek to reduce the discomfort. The same goes for other forms of pain: the discomfort is not sufficient to warrant much action.

Tolerable pain

As the discomfort increases, there is a threshold above which the person will now describe it as painful and, if possible, will start to look for ways of  reducing it. However, they are still able to function normally, such as when you have a 'bit of a headache' and plan to go and get a tablet after you have finished what you are doing at the moment.

Intolerable pain

As the pain increases further, a level is reached at which the sufferer now actively and urgently seeks ways to reduce the pain and their Fight-or-Flight reaction may be triggered.

Seeking to reduce discomfort is called satisficing, where the person's goals change from achieving something positive to reducing the discomfort.

If the pain is too great and cannot be alleviated, then the body may take over and close itself down. In this way people faint and have nervous breakdowns.

Forms of pain

There are a number of forms of pain in which we have thresholds as above.

Physical pain

Physical pain is the most immediate form of discomfort and can easily be overwhelming. Many people find having an injection very close to the intolerable threshold, yet military captives have been known to endure extreme physical torture.

Women are generally said to be more tolerant of pain than men, perhaps being programmed to endure the agonies of birthing.

Emotional pain

There are a number of negative emotions which are very uncomfortable, from grief to shame, and the tears of those who are experiencing emotional distress is evidence enough of the pain being felt.

People vary also in their expression of emotional discomfort, with some easily breaking down in tears whilst others keep a 'stiff upper lip' in suppressing displays. This outer control does not necessarily reflect the inner experience and bottling up negative emotions can make the feeling much worse.

Cognitive pain

Cognitive pain is the discomfort we feel when we are confused or uncertain about something. Whilst this is generally more tolerable for most people, some of us (such as experts and teenagers) are more sensitive to it than others.

Time effects

There can also be time effects in pain, where a lesser pain that continues over a longer period may be compared and traded with a greater pain that may be endured over a shorter period.

People make choices here typically in medical situations, where different procedures may have different long-term alleviation but with correspondingly variable short-term discomfort. In days gone by, naughty pupils in school were given the choice of three strikes with the cane or hours of boredom writing out lines (many chose the shorter, but more painful, punishment).

So what?

When working with others, look for their pain thresholds in various areas. You can then use these in persuasion -- not by applying extreme pain but by applying gentle pressure in the right direction an d/or showing ways of reducing pain.

See also

Satisficing, Fight-or-Flight reaction


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