The Surprising Power of the Pain of Dread

IMG_1179In the immortal words of my Grandpa Holben (who himself was quoting Mark Twain), “If you have to eat two frogs, it’s better to eat the bigger one first.” I mean, how awful would it be to choke down that first frog and know that you still had to swallow one even bigger?

The folk wisdom of getting those most unpleasant tasks out of the way as quickly as possible seems not just to be folk wisdom, but to be rooted in our psyches. According to a recent study, researchers found that people preferred to undergo a painful stimuli sooner rather than put it off even if it meant the stimuli would be more painful. The feelings of dread in waiting for something painful to happen are, apparently, more powerful than the actual pain itself. The study, published in PLOS Computational Biology, found that people preferred to get painful situations over with more quickly, even if it was a “more pain now, versus less pain later” type situation. The “pain” of dread was enough to tip the scales toward a more painful stimuli that they didn’t have to think about for too long beforehand.

I can see this study play out in my own life in various ways: the time spent dreading a cold-weather run is much more painful (psychologically speaking) than the run itself. The anticipation of car ride with a screaming baby can make me feel sick for hours beforehand while the car ride itself is completely manageable. And the worst part of speaking in front of a large group of people is waiting for my turn to speak in front of that large group of people. All of this is because those events consume my mind and stoke my anxiety as I wait to see how things actually turn out.

It just goes to show that in many cases the hardest part of doing a painful, or difficult, or even dreadfully boring thing the thing that we are bellyaching about and hoping will just go away is simply the fact that we aren’t doing it. It’s the dread, the anticipation, the wishing that we didn’t have to, that makes it painful. And as soon as we get past that and actually to the thing itself, well, it’s not so bad at least not as bad as the dreaded anticipation made it out to be.

Then again, tell that to the many women who have suffered through additional days and weeks of pregnancy, past their expected due dates, however, and I’m sure you’ll get the stink eye. I mean, is there anything worse than simply waiting for labor to start? The realization that something painful and unpleasant is coming and not being able to do anything about it or to know when the moment will start can be maddening.

In my last pregnancy, I had a moment, 3 weeks before my due date, in which the anticipation of the pain of childbirth all of a sudden made the decision to have another child seem like a really, really bad one. I wanted to get it over with, but what could I do?  However, once I realized that it was actually the anticipation that was the problem, and not the pain of childbirth itself, I was able to quickly come to grips with the situation and calmly wait things out until my daughter was born.

And, according to the study, it is this ability to re-direct your attention or re-cast “pain” as “relief” that most helps to manage that anticipatory anxiety. (I’m sure many pregnant women can relate to that: What is more painful than giving birth? Being pregnant forever which makes childbirth the lesser of two evils.)

The take-away, then, if you find yourself dreading some future event, is to fixate on something else: lose yourself in other thoughts or tasks while you wait for that event to come to pass like what you’re going to do after you get those frogs off your plate.


photo credit Lizzie Heiselt

Article Posted 2 years Ago
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