Benign pain: what it is and what it is for

And if they told you that self-inflicted pain, can it really be an effective coping mechanism to reduce negative or unpleasant emotions? Sounds a bit strange, doesn’t it? Well, this is suggested by a recent study by researcher Ashley Doukas and her colleagues (2019), published in the journal Emotion .

In this article we will see in detail what this research consisted of, what were its results and conclusions, and also what he said about benign pain (this type of pain that we will explain) a previous experiment.

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What is benign pain?

A new investigation, from the year 2019, published in the journal Emotion and directed by Ashely Doukas, suggests that this type of pain is involved in the regulation of our emotions .

Thus, according to this study, benign pain consists of a type of physical pain, which could help us reduce anxiety and other psychological symptoms. It would therefore be a strategy of emotion regulation.

But what do we mean when we talk about benign pain (always according to this study)? We refer to part of the psychological phenomena behind non-suicidal self-injurious behaviors (in NSSI English). These behaviors are usually carried out by people with some type of mental disorder (for example anorexia, depression … However, according to this study that talks about benign pain, these behaviors are also developed by a part of the population that does not suffer from any disorder mental.

Why these behaviors? It has always been thought that these people (those who have some type of mental disorder) commit these acts because they want some kind of pain that prevents them from feeling the emotional pain they suffer, that is why they cause this pain cataloged as benign pain.

However, the research we are talking about suggests that beyond this reason, the following is found: regulate extreme emotional states . This statement is supported by the author of the study, Ashley Doukas.

Thus, as observed in this research, there would be a part of the healthy population (the “control” group) that would use this benign pain to counteract certain negative emotions. This benign pain is not always caused by oneself, and could also include sensations of cold, heat or non-harmful pressure (as used in the experiment). Specifically, this group reported a reduction in negative emotions after receiving a painful stimulus.

What did the experiment consist of?

In the research we are talking about that tried to explain why benign pain, the researchers proceeded as follows: they exposed 60 participants to disturbing images, and offered them two types of cognitive strategies, as well as two physical strategies, to face the negative emotions produced by these images.

Participants were told that they could reduce that negative emotion in different ways:

  • Thinking about a different image.
  • Changing the meaning of the image in your mind.
  • Self-administering a painful shock.
  • Self-administering a painless electrical stimulation.


The results of the research on benign pain were as follows: 67.5% of the participants chose, at least once, the self-administration of painful shock .

Sixteen trials were conducted, and in these, participants chose painful shock between 0 and 13 times (on average 2 times per participant). The same participants rated the pain stimulation strategy as effective as others, in order to regulate the anguish they felt when they saw the unpleasant images.

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Ashley Doukas, the author of the study, hopes, based on these results, that people who engage in this type of self-injurious behavior will be underestimated, since, according to her, benign pain would be another way to regulate negative emotions . From this point of view, it is true that there are very harmful self-injurious behaviors for oneself, but then there are others, carried out by a group, which hide a “good intention” behind, and it is self-regulation.

This study may seem somewhat bizarre: who can say that self-harm is good? But we should not keep the superficial part; What Doukas implies, with his research, is that there are very negative self-injurious behaviors, of course, but that there are others that would not be so much, because in reality the pain that is caused is not to harm oneself, but to regulate an unpleasant internal state, as a mechanism of self-confrontation .

Doukas, in his study, suggests that we think about when people do intense massages, which “hurt” but are also pleasant, or when we put spicy taco sauce. In these situations we are causing a “benign pain.”

Other investigations

In investigations prior to that mentioned, the procedure was as follows: the participants of the experiment were exposed to sit alone in an empty room for 10 minutes.

They were ordered not to sleep, read or use the mobile phone. But they were allowed one thing: self-administered, with the desired frequency, a painful or painless electrical stimulation .

What happened in this experiment? The results showed how 60% of the participants decided to self-administer, at least once, the painful electrical stimulus . How many times the stimulation was administered? This number ranged from 0 to 69, with an average of 13, which is very much.

That is, they preferred to feel pain than being bored. As in the previous experiment, benign pain, in this case, acted as a self-regulating strategy to reduce negative emotions, such as boredom.

Healthy pain?

Following the investigations explained, we can ask ourselves (as Doukas did) Where are the limits between “healthy” pain and “unhealthy” pain ?

According to her, not so much in the pain itself, but in the mechanism to produce such pain; it is not the same to make a cut than to give yourself a cramp, for example. Thus, perhaps the limit is in the way to infringe that pain.

Its importance to self-injurious behaviors

Ashley Doukas insists that benign pain is part of non-clinical populations , and therefore does not give the importance it deserves to self-injurious behavior in patients with some mental pathology, because they are very serious cases. But she differentiates it; They are not the same actions nor do they have the same purpose.

Doukas intends, through its research, and future research that has as its object of study benign pain, that treatment options for people with self-injurious behaviors can be expanded. The objective is that they can use more “healthy” mechanisms and that, for example, instead of burning or cutting their skin, they can use some kind of non-harmful electrical stimulation.

Doukas speaks, to enable such treatments, of TENS (electrical stimulation devices), devices that are used in the field of physiotherapy frequently . The author encourages the elimination of stigmata and the opening of the mind, especially to health and mental health professionals.


by Abdullah Sam
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