Outside Online Archives

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 2000 Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Tim Hussey

You've just hit mile 20 of the San Diego Marathon—your quads throb, your head spins from dehydration, and your knees grind like rusty hinges. How exactly are you supposed to power to the finish line? Dig deep, say researchers at Johns Hopkins University, and conjure up an X-rated fantasy (perhaps a hot-oil, post-race rubdown by Pamela Anderson Lee or David Hasselhoff, depending on your taste in Baywatch lifeguards).

In a psychological study conducted last spring at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, 40 college students submerged their hands in ice water and used fantasies to help keep the pain at bay. One control group did not fantasize at all; another visualized neutral thoughts like people walking down the sidewalk; a third group entertained mildly sexy thoughts; and a lucky "preferred fantasy" group envisioned their most sizzling liaisons.

What came of it? The more intense the fantasy, the less the discomfort. The findings backed up a mind-over-matter hypothesis that pain can be controlled by focusing on something more enjoyable than, say, the lactic acid swamping your muscles 20 miles into a race. "Negative emotional responses exacerbate pain, creating a vicious cycle," says Arthur Staats, a pioneering psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii who helped conduct the study. "Fantasies, particularly sexual ones, create emotional responses that reduce pain and can help athletes maximize their ability."

Not surprisingly, the study was inspired by the National Enquirer. The supermarket tabloid had picked up a wire-service report of an earlier study conducted by the same researchers, which concluded that mood can affect pain tolerance. But when the Enquirer story ran in March 1998 it gave the findings an erotic spin. "Where I had said 'positive' thoughts, they substituted the word 'sexy,' so the headline became, 'Sexy thoughts banish pain,'" says study codirector Peter Staats, a pain expert at Johns Hopkins and the son of Arthur Staats. "And we thought, you know, that could be interesting." —MICHELLE PENTZ

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