Pain can be debilitating and isolating. Too often all we want to do is crawl back into bed and stay there. It’s hard to imagine dealing with anyone when we’re hurting. Yet there’s no question we all feel better when we push ourselves to be more active. 9 times out of 10, getting out and enjoying friends, family, people, and life, gets me out of my own issues and beyond the pain. And that last time? Well, it’s always worth the effort. People with more friends have a higher pain tolerance, Oxford University researchers have found.
When we think about the benefits of friendship, we typically think of the joy we feel during raucous moments of shared laughter or the comfort we receive from caring hugs of empathetic support. Most of us have never considered the impact of friendship on our tolerance for discomfort, but it turns out that our social health affects our ability to deal with physical pain. Researchers have found that the stronger our friendship circle, the greater our threshold for pain.
Endorphins are part of our pain and pleasure circuitry – they’re our body’s natural painkillers and also give us feelings of pleasure. Previous studies have suggested that endorphins promote social bonding in both humans and other animals. One theory, known as the “brain opioid theory of social attachment,” is that social interactions trigger positive emotions when endorphin binds to opioid receptors in the brain. This gives us that feel-good factor that we get from seeing our friends. These results are also interesting because recent research suggests that the endorphin system may be disrupted in psychological disorders such as depression.
Researchers decided to test this theory, by relying on the fact that endorphins have a powerful pain-killing effect, even stronger than morphine. Pain tolerance was used as a way to assess the brain’s endorphin activity. If the theory was correct, people with larger social networks would have higher pain tolerances. To reach this conclusion, the researchers surveyed 101 healthy adults, focusing on the number of each participant’s “intimate” friends (qualified by weekly interactions) and “close” friends (based on at least monthly interactions). Then the researchers recorded how long each participant could squat against a wall at a 90° angle—a position that will eventually become excruciatingly painful for anyone. The researchers found that the individuals with more friends could hold the agonizing posture longer. They saw this effect even after controlling for a person’s fitness level.
The researchers surmised that this added bonus comes from a simple chemical reaction. People who have stronger social networks release more endorphins, and those endorphins not only give us pleasure, they also act as natural painkillers that increase our endurance threshold. This research is consistent with another study finding that cancer patients with stronger social support experience less pain during treatment than those with less support.
But the result showed two other interesting findings. People that are more fit and those with higher reported stress levels tended to have smaller social networks. It may simply be a question of time – individuals that spend more time exercising have less time to see their friends. However, there may be a more interesting explanation – since both physical and social activities promote endorphin release, perhaps some people use exercise as an alternative means to get their ‘endorphin rush’ rather than socializing. The finding relating to stress may indicate that larger social networks help people to manage stress better, or it may be that stress or its causes result in people having less time for social activity, shrinking their network.
Studies clearly suggest that the quantity and quality of our social relationships affect our physical and mental health and may even be a factor in determining how long we live. Understanding why individuals have different social network sizes and the possible neurobiological mechanisms involved is an important research topic. As a species, we’ve evolved to thrive in a rich social environment. But in this digital era, deficiencies in our social interactions may be one of the overlooked factors contributing to the declining health of our modern society. A lot of our interactions seem to be overtaken by social media. But at the end of the day, we are social animals, and real social interactions are important for our health in ways we’re only beginning to understand.
“We often hear in the news about how to improve our physical and mental health, but I think we should really think of health more as a triad that also includes our social health,” says Johnson, author of the Oxford University study. “Our findings indicate that perhaps by enhancing our social health, and our feeling of connection to others, we might be better primed to deal with pain.”
So next time you’re not feeling well and want to cancel that get-together with family or friends. Don’t. It may just provide the relief you’re looking for.
–Pain Tolerance Predicts Human Social Network Size. Scientific Reports (DOI:10.1038/srep25267)