Explore more

I don’t think I’ve had a bee sting since I was a kid, so I didn't really remember how much it hurts. But when a wasp got me on the finger the other day, I thought I might pass out from the pain.

At first, I did all the typical first-aid stuff: antiseptic, antihistamine, Tylenol, ice. Nothing worked. When I asked my husband to find me something from the pharmacy, I knew what he was thinking: For a wasp sting? Really?

The pain was hard to articulate. The best I could come up with was, "It feels like my finger’s in labor!" But it got me thinking: Was I really a wimp for letting a little ol' bee whoop my ass? Was what I considered to be sheer agony just a mere annoyance to someone else? And could I change that?

When it comes to tolerating pain, there are some biological factors that may be beyond our control. In fact, evidence suggests that women are more sensitive to pain than men. What's more, one side of your body may experience pain differently than the other side. Even your hair color might be a factor. It's believed that redheads, who have a particular gene that influences pain sensitivity, are more sensitive to pain and may need more anesthesia for medical procedures.

But there are some aspects of pain we do have power over. When we experience pain, we have an emotional reaction that shapes how we interpret it. "The things that we place our attention on tend to expand in our awareness," says Sheila Patel, MD, medical director for the Chopra Center for Wellbeing. "Studies are confirming that with mind-body techniques, we can modulate our perception of pain. We begin to have a non-evaluative experience of the physical sensation, meaning we do not have the same negative emotional response to the same physical stimulus, thereby reducing our perception of pain."

According to Patel, there are many mind-body techniques that help divert the mind from zeroing in on pain, including meditation, yoga and pranayam (breathing exercises). Others, like massage and acupuncture, can also be very effective for acute pain. "There are many studies that confirm the benefits of using these in a variety of chronic and acute pain situations," she says.

Penney Cowan, founder and executive director of The American Chronic Pain Association, says anyone with chronic pain will have good and bad days -- and that how they pace themselves on the good days will determine how many more they will have. "We need to listen to our bodies and know when to stop instead of pushing forward and ignoring the first signs of pain," she says.

Alternative pain treatments can be effective either by themselves or alongside conventional medical treatments, but our medical system doesn't typically cover the mind-body interventions that people try when nothing else works (or when they want to get off pain meds). "Engaging people in mind-body therapies early on in the course of their pain management could prevent many people from using unnecessarily high doses of medications, as well as prevent unnecessary procedures," Patel says.

Two of the biggest misconceptions people have about chronic pain is that they just have to live with it, or that there are only a limited number of treatment options. In fact, there's a wide variety of treatments for pain, including hypnotherapy, electromagnetic field therapies, biofeedback, guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, and many others. "Unfortunately," says Patel, "there is not an awareness -- even in the medical community -- about the potential advantages to these therapies. So they're sometimes not recommended by health care providers."

So what should you do the next time you get stung by a wasp? It's really up to you, but I won't fault you for taking a painkiller or two. Those things hurt

About our partners' commitment to health >