Having A Large Social Network Boosts Pain-Killing Endorphins And Increases Tolerance

Friends
New research finds people with more friends tend to have a higher pain tolerance. LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Image

Many of us can remember at least one childhood friend who made growing up slightly easier with jokes and playtime adventures. Even as adults, friendships play an important role in our lives. By bringing laughter and camaraderie, their mere presence can buffer stress as well as the effects of negative experiences. Furthermore, they can help alleviate despair or emotional turmoil. New research published in Scientific reports suggests a better pain threshold may be another benefit of having friends.

The study, conducted by Oxford University researchers, found that people with more friends have a higher pain tolerance. Endorphins in our brain’s pain and pleasure circuitry act as a natural painkiller and can also enhance pleasure. Laughter and exercise release these “feel-good” chemicals, and previous research has shown them to play a fundamental role in maintaining and enduring social bonds.

“Endorphins are involved in our pain and pleasure circuitry.  Although these seem rather opposite from each other, they're both essentially reward behaviours since we seek things that give us pleasure and avoid painful stimuli,” Katerina Johnson, lead author of the study, told Medical Daily . “Friendships help relieve social pain and this may also be via activating the endorphin system which is involved not only in regulating our responses to physical pain but also social pain.”  

For the study, Johnson and her colleagues recruited more than 107 people aged 18 to 34. The participants were asked to complete a social network questionnaire which asked about how many people they contacted on both a weekly or monthly basis. The participants also provided sociodemographic and health information, as well as self-rated assessments of their fitness and stress levels.

Researchers then tested the participants’ pain tolerance by asking them to perform a wall sit exercise which involves squatting against a wall with knees at a 90 degree angle while maintaining a straight back. Participants were asked to hold this position as long as possible. The researchers found that those with larger social networks could hold the wall sit longer.

This isn’t the first study to link social behavior with physical benefits. Past studies have shown that leading an active social life and participating in joyful activities can help treat or prevent depression, contribute to successful aging, and promote longevity. Another study found that social support can be critical after someone has suffered a life-threatening event such as a heart attack. Conversely, some studies have even documented the adverse outcomes of social isolation and feelings of loneliness, such as depression and poor health.

“We hear a lot on the news about ways to improve our physical and mental health,” Johnson said. “We often forget about our social health but I think it's very important to think of them as a triad. Studies are revealing the far-reaching effects of our social lives on our health, suggesting that the quantity and quality of our social relationships may influence our risk for certain diseases, likelihood of recovery from illness and even our life expectancy.”

In other words, our social ties may be just as critical to our overall wellbeing as our diets or exercise habits are. However, this is an extremely small study and more research is needed to understand the cause-and-effect of the relationship between pain tolerance and network size.

Source: Johnson K, Dunbar R. Pain Tolerance Predicts Human Social Network Size. Scientific Reports. 2016.

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