The Relationship Between Emotional and Physical Pain

The Relationship Between Emotional and Physical Pain

June 05, 2017

The space between physiology and emotion grows smaller with each passing study, and the reasons are more obvious than you might think: The physiological and emotional pain centers in the brain overlap.

fMRI studies show that pain intensity shrinks when the hippocampus reflects patients’ optimism, and other studies have shown that chronic pain damages some sections of the brain in the same way psychological trauma does. The anterior cingulate cortex is responsible for feelings of rejection and pain, but there are other, more important, regions involved in both. Some forms of emotional and physical pain share a neural pathway, which seems to respond to acetaminophen.

The Studies

In 2013, researchers found that Tylenol dulls your response to grief. More recently, 62 people were given acetaminophen or a placebo for three weeks and exposed to social rejection. A second study used MRIs to find out how the drug affected emotional pain. Chief researcher DeWall will be doing follow-up studies to find out if the aggression, risk taking, and overeating so often related to social rejection might be kept at bay by analgesics, too. The trials were small ones, but they follow years of research that’s showed similar results.

When Pain is a Healthy Response

The question emerging from these trials is whether turning to painkillers is the answer to life’s ordinary emotional ups and downs. Of course, when depression or other mood disorders are a part of the picture, medical treatment is critical, but if you’re facing nothing more than a broken heart, feeling your emotions might be necessary since numbing everyday pain is unhealthy enough to create an entirely new set of symptoms.

Medicating normal feelings is a disorder in itself. The best (and only) way out of emotional pain is through it, because numbness only postpones difficult emotions for later. As with physical pain, treating the cause beats treating the symptoms, and meaningful treatments often take time. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask for help if you are really hurting, because you could benefit from short-term or long-term therapies. Talk to your doctor if you are worried about your quality of life.

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