You Can Trick Your Brain to Feel Less Pain, Studies Show

Distraction for Pain Relief

There is a simple little trick that works surprisingly well to relieve pain. Distractions. (1)

Research generally agrees that distraction can help to relieve pain. 

“Human brains have a limited capacity for attention. If you have a demanding enough task, you’ll have less attention to give to your pain,” explains Dr. Randy Gollub, associate professor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Pain is sensed in the body through special nerve cells called nociceptors. Once sensed, a pain message is then sent to your brain for interpretation. The amount of attention your brain gives the pain message depends on how much is going on in your brain at the same time. If you are at a busy concert, for example, you might feel the pain differently than in a quiet room. (2)

Not only does distraction crowd out pain, but studies like one published in Current Biology find that distractions also block pain signals before they reach the brain. (3)

The success in relieving pain in this study was not just a result of diverting attention from the pain messages. The distractions caused a release of opioid painkillers naturally produced in the brain that blocked the pain signals.

Here are some ideas to help take your mind off pain and get a dose of natural pain blockers.

Try These Distractions for Pain Relief

Virtual reality technology lets you become immersed in a computer-simulated, three-dimensional world where you can do just about anything, like play games, create music, and even travel. Research suggests that VR distraction is a useful tool for pain relief. (4)

Plug in your headphones and hit play. Listening to music has been shown to help ease short-term and chronic pain. (5,6) A review of research found that test subjects exposed to music required significantly less pain medication. (7

3. Do puzzles

Puzzles are a simple and fun way to help divert your focus from negative thoughts. Completing a tricky challenge can give you a sense of achievement that boosts your mood, making you generally feel better. Try picking up a few new puzzles and see what you enjoy, like crossword, sudoku, wordsearch, riddles, or jigsaw.

Reading books can be a bit more challenging when pain is high. Borrow an audiobook from a library or trial a subscription to an audiobook membership. With a library card, you can get free audiobooks on the Libby app. 

5. Write.

Writing requires a good deal of focus and therefore can be a great way to crowd out pain signals in your brain. Grab a notebook and start recording funny stories and special moments from your past, favorite jokes, or better yet, a gratitude list. You’ll not only reap the immediate therapeutic benefits, but will have a collection of writing to treasure. 

6. Enjoy old photos.

Lose yourself in photos of the past. Laugh at old clothing trends and hairstyles, smile at happy memories, get reacquainted with special moments. Maybe you’ll find yourself creating new scrapbooks or online colleges to share with family and friends.

7. Get lost in travel blogs.

Next best thing to traveling is experiencing travel through others. Travel blogs are quick to whisk you away to far away corners of the world with gorgeous photos of places you may have never even dreamed of going. A quick internet search for “travel blogs” and you are on your way.

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