Three Evidence-Based Strategies for Managing Emotional Pain
Emotional pain can be just as intense and cause as much suffering as physical pain. However, the problem is that there are some myths around that really aren’t helpful. For example, being told that “It’ll soon pass” or that “It’s an opportunity to strengthen your character”. Indeed, this kind of advice, as well as not reducing the intensity of the emotional pain in any way, makes us feel misunderstood. In fact, it may even make us shut ourselves away and become emotionally withdrawn.
Both for the sufferer and others, their emotional pain may seem strange and unjustified. Moreover, among other emotions, it’s frequently accompanied by feelings of sadness, despair, pessimism, a perception of emptiness, and anger.
The good news is that there are some simple strategies for managing emotional pain. In fact, science has found that they’re effective ways of understanding and overcoming suffering. In addition, they prevent it from having more serious consequences. We’re going to explore three such strategies.
“First, accept sadness. Realize that without losing, winning isn’t so great.”
1. Identify the feeling
A 2007 brain imaging study, published in Psychological Science, found that naming emotions more accurately helps relieve emotional pain.
This research suggests that expressing our feelings in a richer way softens suffering. This is why many therapists recommend that their patients/clients write down what’s happening to them outside the therapy space.
Patients should try to be exact in their descriptions. For instance, instead of saying that they feel sad, they might say: “I have a feeling of hopelessness about the future. I feel pressure in my chest and an emptiness in my stomach.” They can express this in writing or in a personal journal or a letter. In fact, the manual act of writing is cathartic. It’s also important to express their emotions during conversations with those they trust or in support groups.
You might be interested to read 5 Keys to Expressing Emotional Pain
Mindfulness practices are a great help in dealing with emotional pain. A systematic review on mindfulness published in the journal, Mindfulness found that this process helps to recognize what emotional pain feels like and how it manifests itself in behavior. From here, a process begins that allows the sufferer to let go of these emotions in a calm way.
When we experience emotional pain we usually feel considerable confusion. Mindfulness works by reconnecting us with ourselves and clearing our minds.
This strategy can be put into practice anytime and anywhere. That said, it’s best to do it upon waking in the morning. If this isn’t possible, it’s best to use times when we’re waiting for something or are carrying out activities that require minimal attention, like walking.
You might be interested to read The Neuroscience of Emotional Pain: Silent Suffering
3. Working on negative thoughts
In a study, Dr. Steven Sultanoff concluded that one factor that most intensifies emotional pain is the cascade of negative thoughts that often accompany it. As a rule, after experiencing sadness, we reinforce a series of beliefs that are only minimally or not at all adaptive.
For example, we might find ourselves saying, “Nothing makes sense anymore. I’ll never be happy again” or something along those lines. These kinds of thoughts feed our emotional pain and reduce the possibility of us managing it properly. What we need to do is identify our negative reflections and re-evaluate them. Furthermore, we need to transform them into more realistic beliefs like “It’s normal to feel sad for ‘x’ reason. I can make this emotion more protagonistic. If I do, I’ll stop myself from sabotaging all my plans”.
The three above strategies are simple. However, if you’re suffering intense emotional pain that’s been around for a long time, you should probably put yourself in the hands of a professional. Thanks to their experience, they’ll be able to help you.It might interest you...
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- Lieberman, M. D., Eisenberger, N. I., Crockett, M. J., Tom, S. M., Pfeifer, J. H., & Way, B. M. (2007). Putting Feelings Into Words. Psychological Science, 18(5), 421–428. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01916.x
- Sultanoff, S. M. (2013). Integrating humor into psychotherapy: Research, theory, and the necessary conditions for the presence of therapeutic humor in helping relationships. The humanistic psychologist, 41(4), 388-399. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08873267.2013.796953
- Tomlinson, E.R., Yousaf, O., Vittersø, A.D. et al. (2018). Dispositional Mindfulness and Psychological Health: a Systematic Review. Mindfulness 9, 23–43. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-017-0762-6.