Childbirth. Menstrual . Cramps. Migraines. If you were born with XX chromosomes, you're probably well acquainted with all kinds of discomfort. Women are more likely to suffer chronic pain than men are, thanks in part to certain female-centric conditions (think: endometriosis, fibromyalgia). But new research shows that pain can be a mental game, and that you can up your tolerance by retraining your brain.
A World of HurtWhen you stub your toe or sprain your wrist, the millions of nerves in your skin and tissues register the sensation and carry it to your brain for decoding. Your mind gets the message and immediately shoots back a "danger!" signal in the form of a sharp ache. All of this happens in a matter of milliseconds and sends your body into fight-or-flight mode, which can cause rapid heartbeat, sweating, hyper-breathing, and lightning-speed reflexes (the reason you can whip your hand away from a hot stove), says Teresa D. Long, M.D., director of the Persistent Pain Management clinic at the University of Kansas Hospital.
How much you wince (or wail!) over that stubbed toe comes down, in part, to your parents' ability to handle hurt, since one aspect of pain tolerance is genetic. (Researchers are still working out the particulars, but studies show that the gene that gives people red hair can also spell an increased sensitivity to pain.) Estrogen fluctuations also might play a role in magnifying aches, says family physician Rob Danoff, D.O., of the American Osteopathic Association.
"Boys and girls have similar pain detection until puberty," he explains. "After that, the perception of pain seems to be more intense for women when estrogen levels drop, like right before menstruation."
Send Pain PackingStill, women can increase their tolerance by using their head. "Your pain threshold can be significantly altered by your emotions," says Beverly E. Thorn, Ph.D., chair of psychology at The University of Alabama. "And over time, the brain can rewire itself to be more or less responsive to certain kinds of pain." For example, women who choose to run long races with sore hamstrings, bum knees, or serious side cramps may experience less pain sensation because they actually want to be running—their positive attitude can overpower the brain's danger signals and activate the pain-thwarting chemical serotonin.
Likewise, research shows that Olympic athletes can inure themselves to pain through strict mental perseverance and intense repetitive physical training. In other words, the more laps you swim, hills you bike, or miles you run, the more accustomed to pain—and immune to hurt—you can become.
Breathing exercises and self-talk also have been shown to reduce discomfort. Next time you're up against big-time pain (e.g., getting a tetanus shot, having a tooth drilled, sitting through a meeting while you have a migraine), inhale slowly through your nose for 10 seconds while silently repeating a mantra like "It will get better soon" or "I'm not going to quit." When you exhale, imagine you're shooting all the achiness out through your nose.
Try to practice setting measurable goals (I'll get through the next hour) and then consistently increase them (I'll get through the next two hours) to encourage yourself to adjust mentally and physically to any harrowing hurt. "Once you start doing these things, they will become a habit and you'll be able to tolerate pain better," says Janet Taylor, M.D., a psychiatrist in New York City.
Uncomfortably NumbWhile the above tips are effective solutions for acute, short-term pain, don't be a cowgirl when it comes to chronic ailments. Tuning out important signals, such as the pain that can come with a growing breast tumor or the sharp, uncomfortable pangs of uterine fibroids, can have serious long-term health consequences.
What's more, a review published in the journal Anesthesiology found that people who actively tried to ignore their long-term pain might hurt more. "Left untreated, chronic pain often gets worse over time; the nerve pathways become more sensitive and pain sensations escalate," explains Long. "After a while, the feeling can end up lingering even after the actual tissue or bone has healed."
Look at it this way: A high pain threshold is definitely a quality to be thankful for—but when your body attempts to tell you something again and again, the smartest thing you can do is listen up.
Keep the pain away and get moving at a fitness class.