Why Relief Feels So Damn Good

Different forms of relief — from pain, or from the fretful anticipation wrapped up in a political election — look quite similar in the brain.

Illustration: Sophi Gullbrants

The Greek philosopher Epicurus famously described pleasure as the absence of pain. And, according to some scholars, Epicurus believed that the greatest form of pleasure comes from the abatement of pain — that is, from relief of some form of torment.

“I think it makes a lot of sense to talk about relief right now,” says Jack Nitschke, PhD, a psychologist and associate professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “I think people are going to be feeling a lot of very strong emotions all at once, and it’s going to be helpful for them to think about those and to try to understand them.”

“Relief requires that there be something unpleasant leading up to it.”

Some of Nitschke’s work has explored “aversive anticipation,” or the ways in which a person’s attempts to predict and prepare for some unpleasant experience can promote anxiety and other debilitating mental states. He says that anticipation and relief are tightly braided. “Relief requires that there be something unpleasant leading up to it,” he says.

“With negative anticipation,” he adds, “there are uncomfortable feelings of worry or dread, or what-if scenarios about something bad happening.” When you experience relief from those feelings — when that source of negative activation or dread is no longer a part of your emotional landscape — that can be intensely pleasurable.

Relief and the brain

Research on itching and pain suggests that, to the brain, different forms of relief may closely resemble one another. Lumped together, they may be among the most deeply rewarding experiences.

A study in the journal Experimental Dermatology found that the relief people experience when allowed to scratch an itch can activate the same brain pathways and mechanisms that respond to addictive substances. A 2013 study in PLOS ONE found that scratching an itch activates multiple reward-related brain systems, and that itch relief also correlates with the deactivation of brain regions such as the insula, the amygdala, and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). Nitschke says that many of these same brain regions — the insula, the amygdala, the ACC — become active when a person is imagining or actually living through a negative event.

“Some of my research on anxiety focused on the anticipation of bad things happening,” he says. “We found that the exact same regions that are activated when someone is concerned about a bad thing happening are also activated when a bad thing actually does happen.” While the brain’s workings are endlessly complex, Nitschke says this suggests that different forms of relief — from an itch, from pain, or from the fretful anticipation wrapped up in a political election — probably look quite similar in the brain.

Research on the brain’s experience of pain also supports this view. A 2013 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that while physical and emotional pain have unique brain “signatures,” they also have a great deal of overlap. “Of all the things I’ve observed in the brain, nothing is more similar to physical pain than social pain,” says Tor Wager, PhD, first author of the study and a distinguished professor in neuroscience at Dartmouth College.

Wager says that, in some ways, the pain that stems from emotional experiences or anxiety can be more enduring and debilitating than physical pain. Every time you think about something that makes you feel dread or concern or shame, your pain is refreshed, he says. And so relief from those negative experiences — for example, relief from four years of intermittent sadness, anger, dread, and embarrassment — can be profound.

This may be especially true when relief comes as a surprise. “There’s a contrast effect, so the greater the break between expectations and experience, then greater the relief,” Wager says. If you expected your candidate to win, you’ll still feel relief if that happens. But if you thought your candidate would lose, your relief will be amplified.

Worry begets worry. It’s time to nurture relief.

In the long run-up to the election, a lot of concerned voters would probably have said that, were their candidate to win, the sense of relief they’d feel would be long-lasting and durable. But research suggests that those who have spent the most time worrying about the election’s outcome may be the least likely to savor any relief that it brings.

If you want to relish the relief you feel, a better tactic may be to avoid the news and instead allocate some time to thinking about — and feeling grateful for — the source of your relief.

Research on pathological worrying and anxiety disorders has shown, over and over again, that worry begets worry. Even when things work out for the best, a mind that is accustomed to fretting is likely to seek out and attach itself to new, dread-inducing hypotheticals.

So let’s say your candidate wins. How can you make the relief last? Switching off the news may be a good start.

A 2014 study in the International Journal of Press/Politics found that news is biased toward the negative and the cynical. But this may be primarily due to consumer demand: Even when people say that they want to see or read more positive coverage, they still demonstrate a preference for negative news content. And that’s especially true of people who are “politically interested,” the study found.

If you want to relish the relief you feel, a better tactic may be to avoid the news and instead allocate some time to thinking about — and feeling grateful for — the source of your relief. Research on positive emotions has found that simply directing your attention at a thing that makes you feel good — for example, your candidate’s win — can prolong your feeling of relief and other pleasurable experiences.

And even if the election hasn’t worked out the way you’d hoped, or if its result is uncertain, setting aside time to reflect on happier experiences or to count your blessings is a boon to your mental health. The circumstances of life don’t always provide the relief we’re hoping for. But there are ways we can conjure it for ourselves.

I write about health and science. I live in Detroit with my wife and kids. I’m trying to learn German, but my progress so far is nicht gut.

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