Response to Pain in Love and Politics

6 min read
OpenClipart-Vectors / Pixabay

Source: OpenClipart-Vectors / Pixabay

How well we do in love and life, and the integrity of our political and social decisions, depends on our conditioned responses to pain, distress, and discomfort. We seek endorphins (nature’s pain reliever and comforter) or adrenaline (nature’s energizer) by habit.

Adrenaline and endorphins temporarily relieve pain, distress, and discomfort in diverse ways. Adrenaline is the better motivator and the poorer regulator. It gets us going but makes us act impulsively on oversimplified solutions, susceptible to unintended negative consequences. Endorphins calm us and afford more considered judgment but reduce the intensity of motivation.

Adrenaline has an amphetamine effect, giving a surge of energy and confidence but setting us up for a crash of energy and self-doubt. We don’t surge as high with endorphins or fall as rapidly or as far as the effects diminish.

The endorphin-adrenaline dynamic is present in infants, who scream when hurt or uncomfortable and are calm in the comfort of a loving response from caregivers. Screaming enhances adrenaline; a caring and affectionate response stimulates endorphins.

When hurt or uncomfortable, toddlers seek comfort from loved ones. If a caring response is consistent, they form habits of seeking endorphins when pained or distressed. By adulthood, they protect and nurture loved ones, reach out to friends, or exercise. Doing all three is the best response to most emotional pain, distress, and discomfort.

If a caring response is unavailable to toddlers, they seek adrenaline to energize and numb the pain. They scream, break things, hit, scratch, bite, run where they shouldn’t, or do other risky or taboo behaviors. In adult love relationships, screaming and risky behavior decline, giving way to avoidance, denial, or verbal aggression. The implication:

I can’t love you if I’m hurt, distressed, or uncomfortable.

Adrenaline and Endorphins in Politics

Our ability to affect politics and social causes is extremely limited. Yet they stir strong feelings of discomfort, distress, and pain. Those conditioned to seek endorphins focus on humane motivations—relieving suffering and hardship and creating fairness and justice. Those conditioned to seek adrenaline get angry and want to break things or enact risky behaviors.

Politicians appeal to adrenaline-seekers because they’re more motivated to vote and contribute financially to campaigns. Those out of power court the “angry vote.” Social advocates needing donations can scarcely resist temptations to do the same, emphasizing retribution for injustice. But the risk is high. Anger is about temporary feelings of power, not value. We tend to vote against someone rather than for someone.

Changes wrought by anger rarely bring lasting satisfaction. Think of arguments you’ve “won” at home. You got your way, only to face withdrawal of affection, resentment, or open hostility. Politicians swept into office on waves of anger are swept out of office on the same waves. It’s not change that causes backlash; it’s anger, which has a way of making enemies of supporters. I can recall many organizations since the 1960s that were formed out of anger but no longer exist.

Social advocacy that appeals to endorphin-seekers has longer-lasting positive effects, for example, child protection and animal rescue organizations, Greenpeace, and Earth Day.

The Curse of Downward Comparison

Adrenaline-driven choices beget moral lapses, which we tend to mitigate with downward comparisons—comparing ourselves to people whose behavior seems worse than ours.

I’m not an alcoholic, don’t cheat on you or beat you, like some partners.

You have to admit, I’m better than your sister’s husband.

Some people would’ve eaten the whole dessert, saving you none.

I don’t cheat on my taxes as much as our neighbor.

We do the same with candidates and advocates we support.

OK, my candidate lies sometimes, but yours lies all the time.

Richard Nixon’s famous quote on the day he resigned the presidency in disgrace:

No one in my administration enriched themselves from public service.

Modern political candidates can’t seem to help casting themselves as the lesser evil.

Why We Do It

Downward comparisons give momentary relief of guilt and shame and justify behaviors that violate your values. They also make improvement impossible.

For personal well-being and a better world, practice upward comparisons consistent with your values.


I want to be fair, compassionate, supportive, like a lot of partners.

I want to be the most honest person I can be.

I want to be a model citizen.

Test the hypothesis:

Write downward comparisons you’ve made and replace them with upward comparisons. Which makes you feel more empowered?

Reconditioning Conditioned Responses

Here’s good news for those who want to save the time and money psychotherapy consumes. You don’t need to figure out how or why you formed conditioned responses to change them. They form by repeated associations. Repeating new associations changes them.

The ideal conditioned response to pain, distress, and discomfort: endorphins-adrenaline-endorphins.

Endorphins afford better judgment. A burst of adrenaline gets things done, and more endorphins attenuate the adrenaline crash.

  1. Practice associating pain, distress, and discomfort with connection—overt or imaginary acts of caring, affection, compassion, kindness, support, or protection.
  2. Focus on the deepest conviction of any change you want to see. (This will give you a trace of adrenaline to enact the change.)
  3. Imagine or enact caring, affection, compassion, kindness, support, protection, or walk for twenty minutes.

Example of a practice session:

I recall my teenage daughter’s disrespectful behavior. My initial response of hurt and anger dissipates when I see that she’s upset about a news report of yet another social injustice. I sympathize with the powerlessness she feels, which provides endorphins. I express admiration for her caring about social causes. She feels validated and cared for, which gives her endorphins and moves her to apologize for her disrespect. I ask if she can think of anything we might do that may help the cause, which stirs adrenaline. Together, we compose a web post. But then she realizes that the web post will have no effect. I point out that a ripple forms waves that sometimes make a difference. But even if it doesn’t, I feel so proud to have such a caring daughter. We connect, mitigating the adrenaline crash with endorphins.

The above was my personal experience. My clinical experience is that forming new conditioned responses to replace entrenched ones takes several daily repetitions for about six weeks at various times of the day. Forming new conditioned responses feels awkward at first, then tedious for a few more weeks. But the reward is a better life.

Keep practicing.

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