What was particularly interesting about the ice-water experiments, Thorn said, was that the men, who tended to be more pain-resistant, actually had higher levels of stress hormones and higher spikes in blood pressure.
At first, the researchers thought this meant that the men were acting more macho -- feeling more stress internally but defying it outwardly. But then other research linked higher blood pressure with lower responsiveness to pain, suggesting that physically, the men's experience really was different.
"I say that to point out," Thorn said, "that this is a really intricate collaboration among biological, social and psychological factors."
Acting macho, she added, is not going to help women cope with pain like men do. Instead, they need to accept the pain and learn how to think about it as something they can live with instead of something they're trying to defeat. Multidisciplinary therapy can make a big difference.
"At the end of their treatments," Thorn said, "my patients say, 'I still have the pain. But the pain doesn't have me.'"