Punishing the Self: Post-Traumatic Guilt Mediates the Link Between Trauma and Deficient Pain Modulation

Yael Lahav*, Zahava Solomon, Alana Siegel, Noga Tsur, Ruth Defrin

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Trauma survivors may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), elevated post-traumatic guilt (PG), and alterations in the pain system. However, the association between PG and alterations in pain perception and modulation among trauma survivors has not been established, nor has the possible underlying role of PG. This longitudinal study investigated: 1) the unique contribution of PG in predicting pain perception and modulation, while controlling for PTSD symptoms; and 2) the mediating role of PG in explaining pain perception and modulation among torture survivors, above and beyond PTSD symptoms. Participants were 59 torture survivors and 44 age-matched controls. PG and PTSD symptoms were assessed in 2003 (T1). Heat-pain threshold, heat-pain tolerance, temporal summation of pain (TSP), and conditioned pain modulation (CPM) were measured 5 years later (T2). Torture survivors had elevated PG and PTSD symptoms, enhanced TSP, and reduced CPM, compared to controls. While PTSD predicted reduced pain tolerance and CPM, PG predicted increased pain tolerance. Moreover, PG mediated the associations between torture and (increased) pain threshold, pain tolerance, and TSP. It appears that PTSD and PG induce opposite effects on the pain modulation capacity of torture survivors, a dichotomy that may explain paradoxical pain responses among trauma survivors, as discussed. Perspective: This longitudinal study sheds light on the possible mechanisms underlying variations in pain perception and modulation among trauma survivors. PTSD and PG each mediated opposing pain modulation profiles, suggesting that individual responses to trauma, rather than the trauma itself, influence pain responses.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)364-374
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Pain
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - 1 Mar 2020


  • Trauma
  • pain modulation
  • pain perception
  • post-traumatic guilt
  • post-traumatic stress disorder


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