- Much of our understanding of what enables us to experience pleasure counterintuitively comes from the more abundant research into pain.
- When we investigate the brain correlates of pleasure more closely, we discover that the pathways for pleasure and pain are closely intertwined.
- When we avoid pain, we are also learning to avoid pleasure. We shut down emotionally as well as physically.
In my last post, inspired by the Netflix documentary about Phil Stutz, author of The Tools, I wrote about how harnessing attention on new ways of “being," (being your most social self), rather than “doing” (certain things to get desired results), in conjunction with practicing radical acceptance, can greatly enhance our capacity for happiness.
The challenge for most is how to practice radical acceptance of what is, when what is, is painful
Tolerating feelings (especially the hard ones) can be a pathway to pleasure
Understanding the symbiotic relationship between pain and pleasure can help us tolerate and embrace all of our emotions. This is key to enhancing our capacity to experience pleasures in the moment and happiness over the long haul.
The relationship between pain and pleasure
Much of our understanding of what enables us to experience pleasure counterintuitively comes from the more abundant research into pain. When we investigate the brain correlates of pleasure more closely, we discover that the pathways for pleasure and pain are closely intertwined.
This interdependent relationship between pleasure and pain is part of our survival network. We are designed to feel them both viscerally. Pleasure and pain, interconnected in the brain, function as signals that get our attention, prompting us to approach things to fulfill our needs as well as to avoid potential harm. When these signals get disrupted, we feel depressed, vulnerable, anxious, and out of sorts—all symptoms of anhedonia, which is the inability to feel satisfying pleasure. When we avoid our painful feelings, we can end up becoming emotionally blunted, with little capacity for joy.
All mammals have built-in pain pathways designed to pick up on painful stimuli and respond by releasing pain-relieving chemicals. These built-in pain inhibitory mechanisms stimulate brain regions that release key internal opioids (endorphins and enkephalins) that make us feel good. Pain functions as survival information, with its own direct line to the brain signaling us to fight, flee or freeze. These wired-in pain-relief mechanisms are the source of our internally produced pleasure chemicals.
In my research on genital stimulation and orgasm, both activated the "pain circuits." This observed activation of the pain-pleasure pathway provides clear evidence of the biological roots of the pain-relieving effects of genital stimulation. Indeed, this is one way our internal opioids help regulate pain in childbirth when certain neurochemicals are released to buffer what might otherwise be even more painful.
Our culture shapes us to avoid pain at all costs
Further exacerbating this connection between pain and pleasure is our difficulty with tolerating any measure of negative feelings. At the first sign of pain, we take an aspirin. At the first sign of emotional discomfort, we may be encouraged to take an antidepressant. In fact, as a culture, we are told not to feel too much of anything! Ironically, this attitude about pain and discomfort points to a profound misconception about how we experience pleasure.
In the popular book, Big Feelings, author Liz Foddlein proposes that we embrace the pain of anxiety associated with uncertainty, and, in so doing, transform it into an energizing part of the adventure of life.
When we avoid pain, we are also learning to avoid pleasure. We shut down emotionally as well as physically. For example, though we may lose a pet and mourn the loss, most people eventually want the pleasure of another pet. Those people whose intolerance for pain is too much will avoid these feelings entirely by refusing to get another pet.
Paying attention to sensations in our body is a route to reversing anhedonia
If you are trapped in pleasure-seeking mode all the time and trying to avoid discomfort or emotional pain, the result will be that your experience of pleasure will also be diluted and numbed. In other words, we need to feel both pain and pleasure to keep our brain and body in balance. The avoidance of feeling pain or pleasure is strikingly obvious when clients first show up for therapy and seem disconnected from the awareness of the sensations in their bodies. It is hard to get them to even respond to the simple question, "What are you noticing in your body as we discuss this issue?" Their blank stares in reaction to my query speak volumes.
My life's work has taught me that the ability to notice, experience, and tolerate the sensations in the body that accompany the thoughts in the mind is critical to empowering wholeness and well-being. We dwell so much in our (often negative) thoughts and interpretations, strivings, and expectations that we register very little of what is actually happening in the body. When we do attend to our body, we often get caught up in wanting it to be different instead of appreciating what is. When signals from the body are interrupted, the result is that there is no result. No response, no stirring of the imagination. No tingling, no desire. This is the state many of my clients find themselves in, having lost their capacity for pleasure.
How do we get back on the path to pleasure? We need a road map.
In her bestselling book Dopamine Nation, Anna Lembke offers one. "Immerse yourself in the life you've been given, stop running away from whatever it is you're avoiding, turn and face it. Now walk toward it."
And we need tools, too. In my book, Why Good Sex Matters, I explain how learning about our core emotions, identifying sensations in the body, and consciously experiencing them more fully in the moment with curiosity, tolerance, and self-love can increase the frequency of pleasurable feelings that are good for us and make our lives happier, more balanced, and more enjoyable.
It is a helpful cure for anhedonia, and what a great map for moving beyond the victimhood of the past and into an empowered and exciting present time wherein healthy pleasure is a possibility.
Wise, N. J., Frangos, E., & Komisaruk, B. R. (2017). Brain activity unique to orgasm in women: An fMRI analysis. The journal of sexual medicine, 14(11), 1380-1391.
Wise, N. (2020). Why Good Sex Matters: Understanding the Neuroscience of Pleasure for a Smarter, Happier, and More Purpose-filled Life. Houghton Mifflin.
Lembke, A. (2021). Dopamine nation: Finding balance in the age of indulgence. Penguin.