Sound the Alarm


written by Mark Bunnell

My favorite part of watching soccer is the “flopping”. Honestly, that might actually be the only part I enjoy. It always goes down the same way. The forward takes the ball into the goalie box, a defender bumps their leg, and all the sudden the offensive player is on the ground yelling and holding their “injured” knee. If the forward can pull off this performance well enough and convince the referee that they were indeed fouled by the defensive player, the forward will be awarded a penalty shot.

For this performance to be successful, the “injured” player must do a few things. They have to flail their arms and legs, contour their face, yell loudly, and most importantly, they must grab onto whatever area they’re claiming has been hurt. This last part is a bit odd because we wouldn’t usually list it as an outward sign for experiencing pain, but imagine if a soccer player just laid on the ground. I wouldn’t be convinced that they were actually hurt. This holding tightly to the “injury” is what sells the performance as legitimate. And that’s because that’s how we actually act when we are in pain. We grab the injured area.

I suppose that I learned to do this when I was young, but, just as crying wasn’t taught to me, neither was this. It seems to be a natural and almost instinctual reaction. And the really weird thing is that it totally helps to alleviate the pain even though it doesn’t heal the injury. So why does it make me feel better?

Let’s start by taking a look at the neurobiology. Our bodies have pain receptors called nociceptors that send signals to the brain if “tissue is being damaged or is at risk of being damaged”. Once the stimuli sent by these receptors reach the brain, the brain has to evaluate the situation and respond in a way that will keep the body safe. Part of this task is deciding whether or not the situation is actually dangerous, and the brain is able to make this judgement call based on previously experienced situations and circumstances. If your brain decides that the situation is sufficiently dangerous to warrant a response, you experience pain that forces you to react to the dangerous stimuli.

Pain is the end result. Pain is an output of the brain designed to protect you. - Lorimer Moseley

If you have a spare fifteen minutes, watch this video about our perception of pain. The speaker describes two situations. In the first, he should have felt extreme pain because he was in danger, but he did not experience any pain, and in the second, where he should not have felt extreme pain, he did.

(Pain is) . . . the feeling, or the perception, of irritating, sore, stinging, aching, throbbing, miserable, or unbearable sensations arising from a part of the body. - Neuroscience; Exploring the Brain

Your pain receptors “may fire away wildly and continually” yet “pain may come and go”, or just be outright ignored, all depending on the brain’s evaluation of the situation. In addition, “pain may be agonizing, even without activity in nociceptors”. In fact, “the perception of pain is highly variable. Depending on the concurrent level of non-painful sensory input and the behavioral context, the same level of nociceptor activity can produce more pain or less pain. … Pain evoked by activity in nociceptors can also be reduced by simultaneous activity in low-threshold mechanoreceptors” (446). In other words, pain can be reduced by activity in nearby touch receptors. This is what happens when you alleviate the pain from hitting your shin by rubbing the same area. You’re sending more signals to your brain that the injured area is okay. In a sense, it deals with the situation by turning off the emergency alarm.

Pain indicates to us that something is wrong, that something is not as it should be. Just like a fire alarm, it tells us that there is a problem that needs to be addressed immediately.

Now up until this point I’ve just been talking about purely physical pain and stimuli. What about painful emotions? Is emotional pain a fire alarm as well? If so, what are the implications for how we should deal with emotional pain?

We (humans, or maybe it’s just me) have a tendency to suppress emotional pain in hopes of avoiding it all together. When the fire alarm first goes off in our home, we turn it off by dismissing the feeling, but that only works for a couple minutes before the alarm comes back on. So we keep turning it off and at the same time, we put in our headphones and turn up the volume to drown out the alarm. But the belligerent beeping still cuts through our headphones and after a while we just get used to it.

We don’t go into the kitchen to see what was setting the alarm off. At first, it was just a piece of toast left in the toaster for too long, but then the toaster caught on fire, and by the time the beeping had become normal background noise, the fire had spread to the living room and threatened to reduce the entire home to ashes.

By the time we noticed that our living room was on fire, it was too late to do anything but run out the door.