In Chinese philosophy, the concept of yin and yang describes how some seemingly opposite forces can often be complementary or even interconnected. Such is the nature of pain and pleasure: two conflicting yet sometimes oddly converging feelings.
If you find yourself enjoying the things that cause you pain, you are not alone. Many people find the line between pain and pleasure a blurry one. Whether it’s spicy food, hot massages, or something more erotic, there is a natural connection.
The brain on pain
Pain and pleasure have similar interacting systems in the brain. The dopamine system is associated with the anticipation or expectation of an experience, whereas the opioid system is responsible for the actual experience of the sensation. Opioids work to modulate both pleasure and pain relief, according to a study published in the journal Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medicine.
These systems regulate neurotransmitters that are involved in reward and motivation behaviors. For example, when you’re hungry, eating food feels so much more rewarding than if you snacked when you weren’t that hungry.
Reward and motivation
Much of our bodies’ processes are used to “maintain homeostasis” (regulate internal stability). In the same way that an air conditioning unit that is set to a particular temperature turns off when its surrounding environment is too cool or turns on when it is too hot, our bodies use markers of pain to introspect on underlying needs that we might not otherwise know.
For instance, when we are hungry, the “pain” of the lacking the food causes us to seek out the pleasure of “rewarding” ourselves with nutrition. Similarly, if once we are full, the “pain” of overeating prevents us from overdoing the pleasure of being satiated.
Pain and sex
When a body is in a state of arousal, pain actually doesn’t seem to hurt as much. According to research published in the Clinical Journal of Pain, the sense of pain actually decreases when someone is experiencing it at the same time as positive emotions. So, if a person is having consensual sex with a trusted partner, the satisfying feelings can blunt pain resulting during rough sex.
Engaging in sadomasochism has potential psychological benefits, as well. Research published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that partners who safely used pain during erotic play reported a heightened sense of bonding and emotional trust.
For some people, sadomasochism can also be an effective way to relieve stress. A study published in the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality says rough play during sex is an effective form of escapism. Researchers found that many people who practice BDSM (which stands for Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, and Masochism) said their style of sex life helped them de-stress.
BDSM certainly isn’t for everyone, and we don’t suggest you try anything with which you’re uncomfortable. However, for anyone who has scratched their heads as to why someone would want to feel two contrasting sensations, research suggests it can be rewarding for those who are willing to try it safely. The key is to try it with a consenting partner whom you trust.