Psychology Today: Is Our Aversion to Pain Killing Us?


by Lisa Firestone, Ph.D.
Psychology Today

The sad and untimely loss of Whitney Houston is yet another highly publicized death that called into question the abuse of prescription drugs. Tragic episodes like this may be making the news because of their high-profile victims, but they also direct our attention to a growing epidemic in the United States. A 2011 report from the Centers for Disease Control stated that, “Overdoses of prescription painkillers have more than tripled in the past 20 years, leading to 14,800 deaths in the United States in 2008.” The CDC further reported that there have been nearly half a million visits to emergency rooms for prescription painkiller abuse or misuse. Many Americans take over-the-counter pain medicines on almost a daily basis without realizing that these medications have been linked to accidental overdoses and death.

These statistics point to an extreme problem in our society: our aversion to experiencing pain or even feeling uncomfortable. Prescription drug abuse is at a high, because Americans are setting their pain threshold to an all-time low. Obviously, people in severe pain should be medicated appropriately and have access to any needed prescriptions. In contrast, people who abuse or misuse substances to avoid discomfort are hurting themselves by failing to deal with the underlying roots of their pain. This abuse of drugs is a symptom of a larger psychological problem. In our ceaseless search for relief, we have become a pain-averse culture. This raises a serious question. Why has our society weakened our perceived tolerance and become so averse to experiencing feelings?

A recent study showed that three in 10 women in the United States use a sleep aid. This stirring statistic reflects our tendency to treat the symptoms as opposed to the problem. Instead of asking how we can get ourselves to sleep, we should be asking “why aren’t we sleeping?” Why are we so anxious that we feel we must actually drug ourselves into unconsciousness?  Read more…