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19 April 2000
Do Sexual Fantasies Increase Pain Tolerance?
by George Atkinson

New research has examined the relationship between pain and mood, which may eventually lead to a simple, low cost way to lessen pain in many medical situations. The study was led by anesthesiologist Dr. Peter Staats, who said, "It also suggests changes in the way physicians should approach patients experiencing pain". The theory Staats's researchers were looking at was whether pain stimuli yields strong negative emotional responses. If this is true then counteracting pain with a positive emotional response may decrease pain.

According to Staats's, "The biology underlying this theory relates to the idea that emotions are likely processed in the thalamus, a region of the brain also closely involved in processing pain responses. During the research a group of forty students had to place one of their hands in a tank of ice water and keep it there until they could no longer endure the pain.

On the second immersion, students were asked to either think of a preferred sexual fantasy, envision a non-preferred sexual fantasy, or, a neutral fantasy. During each session of immersion measures were taken of mood, pain and worry. Those who were in the preferred sexual fantasy group were able to keep their hands in the iced water twice as long as their counterparts in the other groups (three minutes versus an average of one minute). The preferred sexual fantasy group also experienced less pain, seemed to handle pain better, were less anxious, depressed and less angry. "What this study points out is the power of emotion, in this case elicited by language, in treating patients," says Staats. "Before 1950, physicians used the power of suggestion as a major mode of treatment. Now we're so pressed for time that we don't always have a chance to really converse with patients, to listen to their fears and anxieties. Whether patients think positive thoughts themselves or whether you say positive things to them, it will have an impact on their response to pain. The bedside manner, what is said to the patient, is important."

Staats's work seems to support previous work done in this area by his father at Arizona State University in the 1950s, on the causes and effects of emotion on behaviour. Perhaps one day when you visit your doctor for a painful procedure her first question will be about your favourite sexual fantasy!

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