Health

How to take strength from pain

Understanding that pain has a social side can help us think differently about revealing how we feel, says Dr Brock Bastian

There is an awful practice noted in some countries of gangs kidnapping children to work as beggars. In some cases, they go as far as starving or injuring the children, because this elicits more empathy and donations from tourists. Although this reveals a horribly dark side to human nature, its effects reveal something a lot more hopeful.

Research shows that when people see someone experiencing physical or social pain (rejection or hurt) they have an automatic and reflexive response that can be observed in the brain. When viewing the experience of another person’s physical pain, the regions of the brain involved in processing pain are stimulated. So too, when observing someone experiencing social rejection, the parts of our brain which allow us to engage with another’s feelings, to take their perspective, become activated.

We have a visceral and gut-level response to the suffering of others, and this translates into pro-social behaviour. People become more empathetic and supportive of others when they see them in pain.

1292-Pause_embed
The Other Side of Happiness: Embracing a More Fearless Approach to Living by Dr Brock Bastian is out now (Allen Lane, £20)

Researchers have also found that people who experience adversity in their lifetime are more likely to act in pro-social ways. Our own painful experiences build empathy and compassion for others, and increase our willingness to donate our money and our time.

This helps to explain why we often see people come together at times of shared crises. Data showed that rates of volunteering spiked across America after September 11 – people literally became more more supportive of each other. Social support works just like analgesic – it makes the pain easier to bear.

In my research, I have found that when people share painful experiences in a group (such as eating hot chilli, or putting their hands in buckets of ice water) they are more likely to feel bonded and to co-operate, compared to when they share a similar but less painful experience. This helps to explain why we often see people come together at times of shared crises.

Of course, some pains are more visible than others, and it’s only when others know we are in pain that they are likely to respond. Mental illness is sometimes hard to see and the pain and anguish may be hidden. Sometimes this is because people refuse to elevate mental pain to the same level as physical pain. Or perhaps it’s because those experiencing mental distress prefer not to tell others about how they  feel.

Understanding that pain has a social side can help us to think differently about the value of revealing how we feel. Rather than being a burden, we may be just as likely to provide people with an opportunity to engage with their better nature. After all, helping and supporting others is often the most meaningful thing we can do.

Find more from our Guide to Life series here

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
World War 3, climate crisis, benefit cuts… Here's how to process the news when it feels hopeless
Mental health

World War 3, climate crisis, benefit cuts… Here's how to process the news when it feels hopeless

'The pain was too much': Black woman says she almost died in childbirth due to 'racial prejudices'
black woman's healthcare/ tessa
Health

'The pain was too much': Black woman says she almost died in childbirth due to 'racial prejudices'

Specsavers take to the streets with The Big Issue to experience life of a vendor  
Dame Mary Perkins and John Perkins stand outside King’s Cross station, wearing red Big Issue tabards over their clothes. Dame Mary holds a copy of The Big Issue magazine, and both are sporting red tabards. The bustling background hints at the busy London atmosphere, with a clear sky overhead and modern architecture around. They seem engaged in their role, aiming to understand the experience of magazine vendors.
Sponsored article

Specsavers take to the streets with The Big Issue to experience life of a vendor  

'Enormous' number of privatised NHS services across the UK, mapped: 'This is bad for everyone'
Healthcare

'Enormous' number of privatised NHS services across the UK, mapped: 'This is bad for everyone'

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know