When I was a kid, vampires lurked in my nightmares. I yanked my bedsheets up around my neck hoping that the first bite was more cotton than capillaries. I hid behind my father’s recliner when my brother stalked me and bared his canines.
My childhood monster avoidance actions may seem extreme. But they don’t radically differ from how many adults react when pain rears its hair-raising head.
Real or possible, pain frightens. Anticipating that something will hurt can evoke anxious, unreasonable behaviors and panicked, faulty decisions. As explored in previous blogs, biological, social and psychological factors drive us to flee the scary figure called pain.
Fear can negatively impact our:
- Immune, cardiovascular and gastrointestinal systems, accelerating aging and even premature death.
- Formation of long-term memories, even damaging parts of the brain that regulate fear and anxiety. People who are perpetually afraid see the world as dark and obsess on memories that confirm their view.
- Ability to regulate emotions, interpret information, decode non-verbal cues and consider consequences. We become more susceptible to intense emotions and impulsive reactions.
- Mental health, often ushering in depression or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
This same terrifying creature plays some type of role in the real-life drama of addictive behavior. We just don’t yet fully understand its part.
Experts point to two dimensions by which to evaluate pain: tolerance and threshold. Tolerance represents the duration of time someone can endure discomfort. Threshold is the degree of unpleasantness required for us to define the experience as painful. Think of tolerance as “How long?” and threshold as “How much?”
What constitutes someone’s tolerance or threshold limits is purely individual. X-rays may show identical physical injuries but one person’s minor inconvenience can be another’s unbearable throbbing.
Some of this difference can be attributed to a psychological mindset toward pain. Dr. Heather Chapman, Ph.D., Deputy Director, Clinical Psychologist and Supervisor at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VAMC Veteran’s Addiction Recovery Center, referenced a research study that differentiates between “pain threat” and “pain fear.” She explains that someone can be excessively concerned about both the chance of suffering and the degree to which he or she would be afflicted. “The greater the sense of threat and fear, the greater the debilitating symptoms, even to the point of negatively affecting decision-making and effort applied to a cognitive task,” says Dr. Chapman.
Addictive behaviors can furnish the proverbial recliner to hide from our Monster. In Dr. Chapman’s experience, she sees people with intense physical pain and fear of this pain turning to behaviors like gambling, gaming or shopping as a way to shut down the feeling, to essentially not feel pain and override it with a more palatable feeling. So, if you stay up all night scoring bargains on QVC, you may be overriding both pain and fear of pain.
While obsessive shopping can prove expensive and lead to hoarding, there may be even more immediate and significant consequences to pain-avoidance behaviors. Dr. Chapman says, “When someone is intolerant of pain or excessively concerned about its potential, it can be indicative of other issues. That’s why when we look at family history, we don’t just look for other addictions. We probe for anxiety, depression—all of the neuro-biological pieces that influence mental wellness—including a pain vulnerability that can increase susceptibility to all disorders, including addiction.”
Never diminish pain or the fear of it as pure fiction. As noted by Maria Garner, MSW, LSW, ICGC-II and gambling counselor at Maryhaven, trauma remains very prevalent today, and, without conscious efforts to intervene and treat it, lifelong issues can emerge that diminish health and happiness.
Memories can trigger fear responses to prior traumatic events. Garner says, “One of my clients was severely abused as a child. She really struggles to get past day-to-day pain. So many things act as triggers for her. She finds herself in conflict constantly—even when she’s going through a positive experience. She starts spiraling, fixates on an issue or past experience and then becomes agitated and angry and starts yelling and acting out. This occurs even when the current situation has no obvious connection to her past. The real underlying issue? Unresolved pain.”
My vampires didn’t exist or last, they just symbolized other circumstances that threatened my small child’s mind. Pay attention to your physical, emotional or mental hurts and worries. If your fears loom large or remain persistent for more than a few months, seek expert help, explore treatments like mindfulness, meditation, or Dialectical or Cognitive Behavioral Therapies. Also, be careful to avoid coping by turning to gambling, drugs or other potentially addictive behaviors and substances.
Fear may seem like a fictional Monster, but its underlying cause may be real.