Mind Tricks for Relieving Pain

Feel like a wuss when it comes to tolerating pain? Turns out you can up your threshold with a few simple mind tricks.

By Camille Noe Pagan, Women’s Health

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 Hurt

When 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.

The 7 symptoms you should not ignore.

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 Packing

Still, 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.

Yoga moves to help ease pain.

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.

Staying hydrated and eating fish, fruit, and veggies can help increase your pain tolerance.

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 Numb

While 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.”

Get the most nutritional value from your food.

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.

Breathe through it. Deeply.


Eternal Gardener
Eternal Gardener5 years ago


Hege Torset
Hege Torset5 years ago


carlee trent
carlee trent5 years ago


Justin Mullins
Justin M.5 years ago


Lika S.
Lika S.5 years ago

Oh, my pain is constant, 24/7. There is NOTHING that can be done, and well, heat is about the best remedy.

Paulette Andrews
Paulette Brinley5 years ago

I absolutely HATE to take medication..so if there are medication-free remedies for pain (especially back), my ears are wide open! I must agree with article-exercise does help pain (walking is great when backache is the culprit)!

Rosie Lopez
Rosie Lopez5 years ago


Lin Moy
Lin M5 years ago

Have constant pain from fibro. Had it over 20 yrs, last 2 have been all but more than can tolorate. Figure pain threshold is shot now. No pain meds. work period. They ate up stomac linning. Tylonol, blue gell like Icy Hot is what gets me thru . I just live in pain so sleep more than needed. Need a dumpster just to clean house, the more done, the sicker I get.

Gale T.
Gale T.5 years ago

This was a great article and I do beleive that your pain tolorence is in your genes.I also beleive it is mind over matter on some things and the more you think about the pain the worse it gets.

Charles G.
Wilde Thange5 years ago

It was very painful reading this...