Feeling misunderstood could make people more sensitive to physical pain, according to new research. In contrast, feeling understood by another person conjures up more tolerance for physical pain.
Past research has found striking similarities between images of brain activity of people who had experienced social rejection and others who had experienced physical pain, leading researchers to suggest that physical and social pain may actually be processed in the same regions of the brain.
Other studies have also found that when people took Tylenol for three weeks, they reported feeling less emotional pain compared to people who took a placebo pill.
In the recent study published in the journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science, researchers wanted to understand whether feeling misunderstood by others can also cause pain.
Researchers asked participants to first describe how they see themselves. Participants had to look at a list of 10 personality traits and choose two that describe them the best and two that describe them the least accurately.
The participants were then asked to have an informal conversation with a stranger. After the conversation, participants were asked to describe how they felt about the other person and read the impressions the other person felt about them.
The trick is that the feedback participants got from strangers were rigged and randomly assigned. Some participants read feedback showing that their conversation partner thought of them like the way they see themselves, while others got feedback that made participants feel like their conversation partner got them all wrong.
Researches then measured the pain tolerance of the participants by asking them to undergo a cold pressor task. Participants had to stick their non-dominant hand (for right-handed people, their non-dominant hand is the left hand) into a bucket of ice water for as long as they could take it.
The participants who felt misunderstood by their conversation partner tolerated the ice water for shorter periods of time than people in the control, and people who felt understood by their conversation partner could tolerate more pain and kept their hands in the ice water for longer.
The study also included another part. After participants undergone the pain test, they were asked to go outside and stand in front of a hill. Participants were then asked to estimate how steep they thought the hill was. Interestingly, misunderstood participants estimated that the hill was steeper.
Researchers hypothesized that feeling misunderstood could be similar to feeling threatened, which could exaggerate participants' perceptions to feelings like pain.
"The interaction with a stranger who misunderstood him or her could be like an interaction with a threatening person," researchers wrote.
"To the extent that the state of vigilance requires energy...and to the extent that caloric resources available affects one's perception, felt misunderstanding could give rise to an exaggerated perception of the icy water, hill, and distance," they concluded.