Sept. 13, 2001 -- You're at the dentist's
office, white-knuckling the reclining chair. As a bright light assails your
eyes, you focus on the approach of that awful wailing drill and on the shrill
sound of metal meeting tooth enamel. You shrink back in anticipation. Your face
tightens with dread. Then something reminds you of last weekend's romantic
getaway. Perhaps it's the floral painting on the wall, recalling the
rose-patterned bedspread in the room where you stayed. Perhaps it's that love
song playing on the radio -- the song you danced to. Your grip loosens, your
grimace slackens, and your mind wanders. And when the dentist announces,
"You're done," you suddenly realize it didn't hurt as much as you
thought it would.
Does using fantasy to outwit pain and fear
sound far-fetched? It's not, claims a study presented at the annual meeting of
the American Pain Society in October 1999. A research team from Johns Hopkins
and other universities found that people who fantasized about a highly
pleasurable sexual scenario experienced the least pain.
For years, people have used imagery, such
as visualizing the beach or other favorite places, to reduce their perception
of pain during dental or medical procedures. The new sexual fantasy research
suggests yet another option for nondrug pain relief.
Feel Your Pain
In the 1999 study, researchers asked 40
college students to submerge their hands in a tank of ice water and then rate
their pain on a scale of 0 to 10. Researchers measured how long it took for the
students to first feel pain and how long they could stand to keep their hands
in the icy tank.
The subjects were then divided into four
groups, and each person was asked to immerse one hand again. During this
dunking, the control group was told not to use any imagery or self-distractions
that would interfere with their ability to detect pain. The second group
visualized a neutral scene, such as people walking. The third group thought
about a sexual fantasy that each had rated as minimal in terms of pleasure or
enjoyment. The fourth group focused on sexual fantasies that gave them maximal
pleasure and enjoyment.
Those who had visualized highly pleasurable
sexual fantasies reported significantly less pain than they experienced during
their first dunking and also less pain than all of the other groups. They also
were better able to tolerate the pain and kept their hands in the ice water
longer. Researchers found that the highly pleasurable fantasies improved mood,
reduced worry and tension, and increased the subjects' belief that they could
deal with the pain.