The Relationship Between Emotions and Physical Pain

28 October, 2020
Emotions can have physical repercussions. Feeling worried, disappointed, or anxious can even cause pain. Find out why in today's article!

Emotions and physical pain have an almost direct relationship that you’ve probably experienced on more than one occasion. For example, a work conflict that made your stomach hurt or an argument with your significant other that gave you a headache. Another example is worrying about something that you’ve been putting off for a long time and then feeling the muscles in your back get tense.

And what about the pain of a “broken” heart? If you’ve ever been through a breakup or been abandoned and betrayed, the emotional suffering is intense and can be devastating in many ways. So much so that your body feels the impact of the experience.

Difficult emotional situations can trigger exhaustion, lethargy, and even numbness in your muscles and joints. So what’s going on here? How is it possible that worrying a lot or getting your heart broken can be physically painful? Let’s delve right in.

A woman crouched down experiencing emotions and physical pain.

Emotions and physical pain

Psychology and medicine have been exploring the intimate relationship between emotional pain and physical pain for decades. The phenomenon, which scientists call “somatization”, evidences the mind-body connection. While the idea of a mind-body connection seems normal to us today, it was revolutionary at one time, as it directly opposed Cartesian dualism.

This mind-body connection is the reason why patients who are diagnosed with depression often experience headaches, muscle pain, digestive problems, and chronic pain. In fact, neurobiological research shows that a lot of physical pain is related to emotional stress.

Studies such as this one from Duke University in North Carolina (USA) show that medical professionals should always take psychological and emotional factors into account when making a medical diagnosis. A patient’s stomach pain might not be the result of an ulcer but the side effect of an anxiety disorder.

Sadness and anger have the greatest impact on the body

Dr. Afton Hassett is a researcher at the Chronic Pain & Fatigue Research Center at the University of Michigan. He points out that human emotions have both a positive and negative impact on the body.

  • This effect can either help or hurt the body. Some of the most unpleasant emotions for your body are sadness and anger. Having suffered abuse or abandonment as a child, losing a loved one, or going through a complicated breakup can have significant physical repercussions.
  • The range of possible physical symptoms is broad, with back pain being the most common. As we mentioned above, anger is an especially powerful emotion. Dr. Hassett points out that the most irritable people or those who’ve been repressing their emotions for a long time tend to be hypersensitive to pain. They’re also more likely to have stomach problems, migraines, and joint pain.

Emotions and physical pain: which are more intense?

What hurts more? Losing a loved one or breaking a bone? Breaking up with your significant other or burning yourself on a hot stove? Although these questions might seem contradictory, they actually have a clear answer: emotional pain hurts more than physical pain.

That’s the conclusion of a study published in the Journal of Psychological Science by Dr. Adrienne Carter-Sowell and Dr. Shangheng Chen. The keys to understanding this relationship are the following:

  • Emotional suffering often lasts longer. While physical pain is temporary, the pain caused by emotions and feelings can last years or even a lifetime.
  • Humans aren’t good at dealing with negative emotions. Consequently, not being able to properly process loss or a breakup can turn this emotional pain into something chronic. The same thing happens with anger, as we mentioned above. If you’ve been hiding your frustration and anger about something for years and years, it’ll absolutely take its toll on your body.
  • The authors of this study also made an interesting point. You can’t relieve physical pain but humans are very good at activating emotional pain over and over again. In other words, it’s impossible to fully recall the pain of a broken bone but it’s easy to relive how you felt when your partner left you, whether it was yesterday or years ago.

Put in the emotional work

We know that emotions and physical pain are two sides of the same coin. It happens all the time. Chest tightness, muscle spasms, a sore neck, headaches. What can you do in these circumstances? The answer is simple, but hard to apply. You need to work on emotional management. Try not to ignore your emotional issues. Don’t put off this emotional work. Deal with it today.

An argument that ends badly, poorly-managed stress, unresolved worries, or a painful breakup that you just can’t move on from. All of these experiences have side effects that go beyond the emotional world, so it’s vitally important to deal with them appropriately. Always remember that, if you can’t deal with your emotional pain, trained, qualified professionals can help you.

  • Chen, Z., Williams, K.D., Fitness, J. y Newton, N.C. (2008). When Hurt Will Not Heal: Exploring the Capacity to Relive Social and Physical Pain. Psychological Science, 19 (8), 789-795.
  • Mark A. Lumley, Jay L. Cohen (2011) Pain and Emotion: A Biopsychosocial Review of Recent Research. Journal Clinic Psycholy. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2012 Sep 1. Journal Clinical Psycholy. 2011 Sep; 67(9): 942–968.
  • Hassett A. At the Intersection of Affect Regulation, Reward/Value Processes and Placebo. Presented at the American Pain Society Scientific Summit. March 4-6, 2018, in Anaheim, California.
  • Muller R, et al. Effects of a tailored positive psychology intervention on well-being and pain in individuals with chronic pain and a physical disability: a feasibility trial. Clin J Pain. 2016;32(1):32-44.