Maintaining an active social life may affect more than just our mood. Recent research shows that being social could affect how our bodies handle pain as well.
According to a new study, people with a larger circle of friends and a more active social life may be better able to tolerate pain. The study, led by Dr. Robin Dunbar at the University of Oxford, looked into the connection between pain thresholds and social networks. The study hypothesized that endorphin activity in the brain is correlated with pain tolerance. Researchers theorized that the brain’s endorphin system has evolved to reward and reinforce socializing, because of the need for strong social bonds for survival.
To test this theory, researchers examined the social activity and pain thresholds of 101 adults, ages 18 through 34. Each participant was asked to complete a questionnaire that quizzed them on how many friends they contacted once a week, and how many they got in touch with once a month.
Afterwards, the participants underwent a brief, uncomfortable physical test to measure their pain tolerance. Participants were told to squat with their back against a wall with their knees positioned at a right angle to their body, and stay in the position for as long as they could bear it. This exercise also served as an indirect method for researchers to gauge participants’ endorphin levels, as higher pain tolerance is linked to increased endorphin activity.
For participants across all ages, the study found that those with larger social networks also possessed a higher pain tolerance. The difference of a few friends dramatically influenced the results: participants who reported that they got in touch with seven friends on a monthly basis could keep the pose for one minute on average, whereas those who contacted 12 friends per month could tolerate the pain test for four minutes on average.
While the study supports previous evidence that higher endorphin activity and pain tolerance are correlated with social interactions, the cause is still unclear. The results do not determine whether greater social activity boosts the release of endorphins, or whether people with a more active endorphin system are predisposed to being more sociable.
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