Saying 'ow' really can ease pain

Writing in the Journal of Pain, researchers at the National University of Singapore state that vocalising pain by saying ‘ow’ can help us tolerate physical pain for longer.

56 participants were asked to immerse their hand in unbearably cold water, those who were able to verbalise their pain by saying ‘ow’ could keep their hand in the water for up to three and a half minutes longer.

Previous research has suggested that saying ‘ow’ has a communication purpose, initiating caring behaviour in others and warning of danger, however this new research suggests the additional benefit of saying ‘ow’ is that it actually reduces the physical experience of pain.

So why do we find it so difficult to say ‘ow’ when we feel emotional pain?

We may express our pain with tears and that is healthy and helpful, but often we do not allow ourselves to verbalise and communicate our emotional pain or psychological injuries, instead choosing to bottle them up. We may be concerned about exposing ourselves as weak and vulnerable, we may not want to talk to others for fear they will not understand or will find us burdensome, or that our feelings are unworthy of attention.

In his book “Emotional First Aid” Guy Winch PHD asks why do we have medicine cabinets at home full of supplies for common physical injuries, but we do not have a toolkit for psychological injuries. During our lives we may experience a number of emotional injuries such as failure, loneliness, rejection, loss, guilt, low self-esteem, but we have a tendency to put them to the back of our minds and carry on.

If we receive a physical injury we do not bottle it up! We attend to it immediately - we will clean and dress a cut or wound so it heals, we will have a broken arm or leg x-rayed and plastered to aid the healing process and prevent any further damage, but we do not seem to apply the same attention to our psychological injuries. Why do we suffer significant amounts of emotional pain without seeking help or treatment?

In fact we may allow ourselves to suffer for many years with psychological injuries, trying to put them out of our minds, shaking them off, believing it's all in our heads so it is not important. However if psychological injury, pain or trauma is not attended to, it can lead to symptoms such as anxiety, phobias, depression, sleep problems, relationship difficulties, underachievement, drinking or substance abuse, self harm and so on.

There is a huge bank of evidence to suggest that by saying a metaphorical ‘ow’, talking through feelings can help ease emotional pain. Putting words to how we feel can decrease physical symptoms and behaviours. By making sense of how we are feeling through verbal communication, we not only relieve built up tension but we can find the space to think and attend to our psychological injuries. If we do this with professional help we could achieve:

  • Relief from psychological distress and suffering.
  • Emotional strength and stability.
  • Improvement in the quality of relationships.
  • Significant reduction in symptoms and symptomatic behaviours.
  • Increased ability to make better choices.
  • Improved sense of well-being.
  • Greater understanding of self.

If you feel you might need some emotional first aid then why not talk to friends or family or contact a local counsellor for an appointment?

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Oakham LE15 & Stamford PE9
Written by Debbie Haring, BSc, MSc, MBACP
Oakham LE15 & Stamford PE9

Debbie Haring BSc, MSc, MBACP, Psychodynamic counsellor working in Private Practice

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