Dreading Pain May Be More Unpleasant Than The Pain Itself, Study Suggests

If you've ever gotten a flu shot, you know this to be true: The time you spend waiting for the shot is often more unbearable than the actual pain from receiving it. And now, a new study backs this up.

Researchers from the Institute for Global Health Innovation, Imperial College London, and the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London found that dreading pain is in some cases more unpleasant than actually experiencing the pain itself.

For the study, published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology, researchers conducted two experiments to examine the relationship between time and the dread of pain. The first experiment involved subjecting study participants to electric shocks on their hands. The participants could choose whether they wanted the painful shocks sooner or later (in just a few seconds, or as long as 15 minutes in the future).

"At the group level, participants showed a strong preference for sooner pain, at the expense of an increased number of shocks, confirming the existence of a strong effect of dread in the experiment," researchers wrote.

In the second experiment, participants had to decide when they wanted to have a painful dentist appointment; they could either have the appointment "today," or could delay it for up to 237 days into the future. They were also given different pain levels for the dentist appointments, so that researchers could see how the anticipation of extreme pain affected choosing timing of the appointment, compared with less pain.

Just as in the first experiment, "at the group level, participants showed a strong preference for sooner dental appointments, at the expense of more severe dental pain," the researchers wrote in the study.

Overall, the study participants dreaded pain, researchers found. "These participants preferred to experience the same pain sooner rather than later and were willing to accept more pain in order to hasten its occurrence," they wrote.