Is Irritability a Natural Part of Pain?

By Jill Fancher, PhD

Irritability is key component of the agony of pain. Agony is caused by a brain activation pattern that engages our fight-flight stress response. It is there to help us survive and get out of a dangerous situation when we need to. Seeing that irritability is a natural event co-occurring with pain, we can be more compassionate with ourselves and others with pain, showing more patience with each other and less judgment. While it doesn't give us a free ticket to be rude, it can help us recognize that the irritability itself may not be our fault; freeing us from unnecessary guilt, motivating us to find a path away from the agony of pain, and towards a deeper state of calm.

Why does it seem as though we are more irritable when pain gets more intense? Even when we try to hide it, the edgy feeling is easily provoked by pain. Sometimes many of us are insightful enough to notice it within ourselves. Sometimes many of us only notice the irritability after it's too late and we've already snapped at someone.

Having pain dramatically increases the likelihood of being irritable. This really isn't news. Who wouldn't be irritable with pain? It turns out there is a much more fundamental reason why we may be more irritable with pain, and it has nothing to do with your pain tolerance or being weak! (Both topics we'll take apart another time).

A recent study discovered that irritability is a very important survival mechanism.

Published online, May 8th 2014 in the journal Cell, Robyn Crook and colleagues reported on an interesting behavior of injured squid that appeared to demonstrate irritability. First of all, it's important to know that squids don't have brains the like humans. They have a very rudimentary brain, with two optic lobes and a central ganglion that instinctively reacts to stimuli. So when they were injured they didn't self-reflect, think, feel sad, or get mad about it. Instead, the injured squid were more quick to react to environmental cues as if they were on edge.

It turns out the researchers also witnessed that the squids' predators had a keen sense for the injury and sought out the injured squid purposefully, likely seeing an easy target. Because the injured squid were on edge, they were faster at recognizing danger and could escape their would-be killer. Thus, the irritability of pain kept the squid alive.

Understanding this natural utility of irritability as a survival mechanism is a first step in handling this part of the agony of pain. When we develop a deeper understanding of the purpose and biological processes involved in the components of pain we become empowered to change pain. The Mastering Pain Method trains the brain and body to change all the parts of pain, including the brain activation pattern associated with agony and irritability.