Anxiety, attention and pain

J Psychosom Res. 1993 May;37(4):423-31. doi: 10.1016/0022-3999(93)90145-6.


In a within-subject design the hypothesis was tested that focus of attention rather than anxiety influences pain. Twenty-four spider phobics received a moderately painful electrical stimulation in each of four conditions: low anxiety/attention directed towards pain; low anxiety/attention distracted from pain; high anxiety/attention directed towards pain; high anxiety/attention distracted from pain. Anxiety was induced by means of exposure to a spider. Subjective pain ratings strongly supported the hypothesis: pain was rated lower when the subject diverted attention away from than when the subject attended to the pain stimulus, regardless of level of anxiety. The Skin Conductance Response to the first pain stimulus of the series of four in each condition was, however, higher when the subject distracted than when the subject attended to the pain stimulus. There were no experimental effects on later Skin Conductance Responses. Most importantly, there was no influence of anxiety on any of the pain responses. Attentional focus rather than anxiety per se seems to influence pain.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Anxiety / psychology*
  • Arousal*
  • Attention*
  • Behavior Therapy
  • Female
  • Galvanic Skin Response
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Pain / psychology*
  • Pain Threshold
  • Phobic Disorders / psychology
  • Phobic Disorders / therapy