Our old friends fear and pain

I’ve been contemplating some of my favorite topics — pain and fear — and have some insights that might be worth sharing.

I think we generally agree that pain is the body’s way of telling you there is something wrong, usually structural damage, and it needs to be dealt with Pronto. And we understand that fear is our brain contemplating possible outcomes, and trying to drive us away from activities that could result in pain/structural damage. As such, we might experience fear when contemplating hang gliding or placing our head in the open mouth of an alligator.

We know some people have irrational fear responses. They become afraid of everyday activities which have little likelihood of pain, like leaving their house or riding in a car. One question I find myself asking is whether we can have irrational pain responses e.g. can we feel more pain than the situation really warrants? For instance, I find that if I pinch myself with my fingernails, I experience quite a bit of pain. More pain than really seems necessary. However, my body might argue that that tiny pinch could really be a scorpion or spider biting me and it’s better to overreact.

Back to fear: how does our body/brain calculate the amount of fear to deliver on a situation by situation basis? (The same question could be asked of inverse emotions: how does the body/brain know the amount of joy to deliver in a situation?) On what information does it based its “calculations?” I would imagine past experience is one source. The classic horror film conceit is that a person sees their parents killed by someone dressed up as Santa Claus, and thus they fear anyone dressed up as Santa Claus. How we were raised is probably another source of information. As children, we foolishly look up to our parents as godlike entities. If they tell us over and over to stay away from iguanas, we will eventually generate a strong fear response at the sight of an iguana. (Which is a shame, since iguanas are intrinsically very loving creatures.) And, as referenced in my previous post, there could be an element of “biological memory” at play as well; some people have an innate fear of snakes and spiders.

Let’s say we agree that this is how the body generates fear. Can the body also generate pain in a similar manner? For instance, if you are somehow convinced that touching an ice cube will cause searing migraines, will you experience such migraines if you touch an ice cube? My general recollection of research into this matter is that the answer is yes, that does happen to some (not all) people.

What really got me started on this entire topic was thinking about how, when I was first dealing with serious repetitive strain pain in my arms, I read a number of alarming warnings in books and on websites that basically said, “If you feel any pain during an activity like typing or mousing, STOP, or you will spend the rest of your life on Social Security disability and women will laugh at you!” Did this train my brain to be hypersensitive to pain? (It obviously didn’t affect my ability to rhyme.) I don’t know, but I have my suspicions. It’s certainly true that none of the doctors, neurologists and physical therapists I saw prominently raised this as a possible factor.

1 Response to “Our old friends fear and pain”


  1. John Saleeby

    I have never experienced this “Fear” you talk about. You Humans and your – SULU JUST PUT HIS HAND ON MY KNEE!!! SUL JUST PUT HIS HAND ON MY KNEE!!!