The Social Regulation of Pain: Autonomic and Neurophysiological Changes Associated With Perceived Threat

Xianwei Che, Robin Cash, Paul Fitzgerald, Bernadette M. Fitzgibbon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)


The analgesic effect of social support is proposed as a function of social support modulating perceived threat of painful stimuli. In the current study, we directly examined the social buffering effect in the context of the threat of pain. Eighteen healthy participants were subjected to the threat of pain while they held the hand of a close other, a stranger, or not at all. Neural and autonomic responses were recorded using electroencephalogram and heart rate, respectively. Close other hand-holding reduced pain perception. This was accompanied by decreased heart rate and frontal theta oscillation (4-8 Hz) during the threat phase preceding painful stimulation. Interestingly, decreased heart rate and frontal theta in the close other hand-holding condition were uniquely associated with greater pain reduction during subsequent nociceptive stimulation. Neural changes were source-localized to the insular cortex and the rostral-ventral portions of anterior cingulate cortex, regions involved in the processing of threat and pain. Together, our data build upon work to date linking social support to pain by showing autonomic and neurophysiological changes associated with pain reduction. Perspective: Social support may reduce pain through buffering the autonomic and neurophysiological response to the threatening quality of noxious stimuli. Results implicate that in clinical settings the caregiver could help people with chronic pain reappraise pain and related conditions as less stressful.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)496-505
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Pain
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - May 2018


  • Heart rate
  • Pain
  • Social support
  • Stress
  • Theta oscillation

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