Do we feel more pain when we’re alone?

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Ruby seemed to have a lot of energy this morning, so I decided to take her for a walk at our favorite spot.  We walked for about half an hour– me all bundled up, and Ruby wearing her nice new $45 coat (oy!).

The path was a bit slippery following yesterday’s snow storm.  There was a thin layer of snow on top of another thin layer of ice.  But we plodded along, me enjoying the sunlight and Ruby enjoying the way the snow had trapped the smells of everyone else who had come along.

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I hope I don’t look like a terrible dog-owner… the water is only an inch deep!

After about twenty minutes, Ruby turned around and faced the direction we had come in (her way of signaling that she’s ready to go back to the car).  I wasn’t really ready to stop walking yet, so I helped her back in the car and then set off for one last loop of the field.

But with Ruby gone, it just wasn’t the same.  Suddenly, I noticed how cold I was.  My hat didn’t completely cover my ears.  My boots didn’t really fit.  My knees hurt.   It was like everything that had been tuned out by Ruby’s company had come back into focus.

The moment had clearly been lost, so I just gave up and went back to the car.

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This is something I’ve often noticed over the past few years—how much better I feel when others are around.

And it can’t just be anyone.  For example—I don’t want to air any dirty laundry here—it doesn’t work so well with people I’m not as comfortable with, aka certain individuals who are not exactly sympathetic about my being in pain.  With them, the pain stays the way it is.

But with close friends, or beloved animals, my mind just doesn’t seem to focus on the pain as much.  It’s like my mind’s eye is a camera, and having friends around presses the “zoom out” button.

I’ve been told time and time again that my nervous system focuses on the pain too much, as though it’s permanently stuck on the “zoom in” setting.  I wonder if the way I feel when others are around is the way it’s supposed to be, the way it is for other people.   If the deluge of sensations I got once Ruby was back in the car– hat not covering my ears; boots not fitting perfectly; knees aching slightly— was my nervous system zooming back in, and I was once again feelings things that most people wouldn’t notice.

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I’ve had more than one Saturday where I limped around during the day, with either my ankle hurting, or my knee.  Where I’m afraid to walk fast, or drive fast; afraid to step down off a curb.

But then I go out with my friends that night, and slowly the pain melts away. (And it’s not because I drink—I never feel like drinking when I’m already not feeling well).  After a day of limping, I might find that by the end of the night I’m walking normally down the sidewalk.

I used to be embarrassed by these experiences, and felt like I needed to keep them a secret.   It was too close to what people said—that I’m physically capable of doing much more than I think; that it’s all in my head.

But I can’t help the way I’m wired.  Now that I’m older and a bit more secure in myself, I figure I might as well build upon what I’ve learned and use it to my own advantage.

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I’m certainly not the first person to say this, but I don’t think that our contemporary, isolated society is really the best thing for human nature.  We were built to stay together; to live together, to work together.

When you’re out in the wilderness, you have to be on the lookout for predators.  For enemies.  And for physical dangers and natural disasters.   Obviously, there’s safety in numbers; all of these things are easier to deal with when there’s another person (or animal) by your side.

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Thank you to CaptPiper on Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/piper/

I think that, on some level, our perceptions of pain and bodily discomfort are tied into our overall perception of threats.  Obviously, my ears being cold and my knees hurting are not as much of an immediate danger as a wild animal, but from an evolutionary perspective, cold weather and musculoskeletal injuries both have the potential to affect our chances of survival.

I think our bodies use the same “alert system” to respond to all of these different types of threats.  And, with all of these threats, we are more likely to survive when we have other members of our “group” around.

It might be ok to relax a little bit and let your guard down when you’re surrounded by your “tribe,” but once you start to walk into the woods by yourself, everything is ten times more dangerous.  So your nervous system must be ten times more alert.

This is why, when I put Ruby back into the car, my sensations were heightened.  It’s not really that Ruby would be much help against any kind of enemy or hungry predator.  It’s more about what’s happening on a neurological level; that I recognize her as a member of my “tribe.”  That I am not completely alone.

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Who says dogs can’t be any help? Credit to Oakley Originals on Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/oakleyoriginals/

One last thing I would add to this post is that, when I’m with Ruby, I have a very nurturing mindset.  My own needs and discomforts are overshadowed by the needs of the creature I am taking care of, so my mind doesn’t focus on the pain as much.

From an evolutionary mindset, our ability to nurture and put the needs of another before our own developed through raising children and passing on our genes.  Obviously, I’m not passing on any genetic material through Ruby, but I think if you were to put my brain in an fMRI, you would see that, when I’m caring for Ruby, I’m tapping into the same brain system.

The reason why I didn’t focus on this as much in this post is that doesn’t have as much to do with why I feel less pain when I’m with my friends.   I don’t really nuture my friends (at least, not in the way I would nurture a child!)  I certainly try to be a good listener, though.

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I’m curious to know what you, my readers, think.  Has this ever happened to you?  Are there certain people, or animals, whose presence simply causes you to feel less pain?  And do you agree with my evolutionary theories?  Disagree?  Let me know!


9 thoughts on “Do we feel more pain when we’re alone?

  1. I agree and disagree, I admit. I feel mixed up feelings that will need sorting out. But what did strongly resonate with me is feeling ashamed when being happy eases your pain. I love your blog, and your posts about using the mind to help fight off pain. But trying to explain it to other people always gets an aggressive response – “that’s nice, but my pain is REAL.” I wish I could explain it as eloquently as you. :)

  2. What beautiful pictures, and I love the falling snow!

    When I feel my “regular” pain level, nurturing my pets and being with people I’m comfortable with eases the pain. If I have to be around someone difficult, the stress definitely adds to the pain. When I’m having severe or “crisis” pain it doesn’t make as much of a difference.

    When I think of my “alert system” as natural part of my animal nature, it helps me to not judge myself about it.

    I understand you’re not nurturing your friends in the same way as your dog, but I wonder if the feeling of supporting and being supported when you’re together touches on the same part of our brains?

    1. Thank you!

      I think I must be the only person on the planet whose pain doesn’t get worse in stressful situations. I’ve heard so many people say that, but luckily it’s never really happened to me. I think, if anything, stress actually distracts me from pain. I should probably count that as one of my blessings….

      And I think you’re right, that the concept of not being alone and the concept of nurturing are probably more related than I originally thought. After all, it’s only in the company of people (and animals) who I care about, and who care about me, that I feel a decrease in pain.

      Interesting food for thought! Thanks for your comment!

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