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Jilt the Guilt with Physical Pain!?

Guilt and Shame

“Man, I was just brutal – I really hurt her feelings. The guilt is killing me. I think I’ll stick my hand in a bucket of ice for a while.”

Okay, as goofy as that sounds, it may make a lot of sense.

According to University of Queensland (Australia) psychologist Dr. Brock Bastian…

“Pain may actually be functional in many ways.”

The connection between emotional and physical pain is no great secret. Ask someone who self-injures why they do it. But is using physical pain to relieve emotional torment a part of our very nature?

Bastian and his research team seem to think so. Their work was published in a recent edition of Psychological Science.

The Research

Bastian and the gang recruited 62 undergrads, duping them into believing they were participating in a study on mental and physical acuity.

Ready, set, go – the supposed mental acuity work was first. 39 of the participants were asked to spend 15 minutes writing an essay about a time when they behaved in a hurtful or immoral manner.

The purpose of the task was simple. The team wanted to get the participants to experience the feelings associated with what they had done.

The remaining 23 participants (the control group) were asked to write about a routine interaction they had with someone the day before.

Right after the essays were written, all 62 participants were asked to complete a questionnaire regarding how they were feeling at that very moment.

Among others feelings, they were asked to rate guilt on a scale of one (little or none) to five.

The trickery continued as the participants were told it was time to do the physical acuity work. They believed it was a brand-new experiment.

The 23 who had written about a routine interaction, along with 20 of the 39 who wrote about their hurtful or immoral behavior, were asked to submerge their non-dominant hand into a bucket of ice for as long as they could.

The rest were asked to do the same in a bucket of warm water for 90 seconds.

To maintain cover on the supposed physical acuity experiment, all participants were asked to move paper clips one at a time between two boxes.

Done. Right away, the participants were presented with another questionnaire. They were asked to rate on a scale of zero to five – five being hurts the worst – how much pain they experienced in the ice and warm water.

The Results

Catch this. Those who’d written about behaving in a hurtful or immoral manner left their hands in the bucket of ice for an average of 86.7 seconds. Those who’d written about a routine interaction from the previous day managed only 64.4.

Explanations? Well, the participants who were feeling guilty were either seeking pain or simply grew accustomed to it and accepted it. But Bastian and the team believed the results indicated those feeling guilty actually sought the pain.

See, those feeling guilty rated the intensity of the pain at an average of 2.8. The others rated it at 1.9. For the record, those whose hands were in warm water rated the pain at 0.1.

But if that wasn’t enough, Bastian and the team believed the follow-up scores indicated the pain experienced was cathartic – a purification or purgation that brings emotional release and renewal.

Think about it, laboratory proof that guilt has profound impact upon the willingness to tolerate pain. And guilt can actually be lessened by that very same pain.

Let’s Wrap It Up

Dr. Bastian’s work is incredibly creative and telling. Is it such a stretch to believe human nature would have us seek physical pain for the relief of its emotional counterpart?

I sure don’t think so. How ’bout you?