January 8, 2020

Volunteering can help reduce physical pain, study finds

What are you waiting for. Do good and you will feel good.

A pair of studies from researchers in China show a link between altruistic behavior and physical pain. Photo by ray sangga kusuma/unsplash

Volunteering, it does a body good.

A group of recent studies published in December in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, discovered that giving back can reduce physical pain.

The link between volunteering and mental health had previously been established, with research suggesting that donating your time has the power to alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression. An entire nonprofit, Project Helping, was founded on the principle of volunteering to boost mental health.

The studies focused on 287 people all participating in different ways of giving back—from spending time helping a friend to donating money to a worthy cause. One of the studies found that those who volunteered to give blood after an earthquake experienced less pain than those who underwent a routine blood test. Another study looked at cancer patients dealing with chronic pain. The patients could either cook and clean for themselves, or do those same chores for other people living at the treatment centers. The patients who were cooking and cleaning to help others reportedly reduced their pain.

The researchers discovered that it was the meaning that people assigned to their act of service that affected the amount of pain felt by the brain. Pain reduction didn’t just take place over the long term.

“Whereas most of the previous theories and research have emphasized the long-term and indirect benefits for altruistic individuals, the present research demonstrated that participants under conditions of pain benefited from altruistic acts instantly,” the researchers wrote.

That means if you’re looking to reap the most pain-relieving benefits, choose a cause that’s the most meaningful to you. Check out a site like VolunteerMatch or Golden Volunteer to get matched with an organization that will get the most out of any special skills you may have.

Or maybe you’ll find more meaning in helping your immediate community. Luckily, finding hyper local volunteer opportunities is easy.

Caitlin Fairchild

Caitlin Fairchild is the deputy editor of The Renewal Project.
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