The science behind emotional pain

I love theories. I love philosophy, I love voicing your own thoughts and opinions, comparing it to other opinions and discussing them. I sometimes love when there´s no straight, direct answer to something because that means that the possibilities are endless. 

But. I love scientific proof just as much. Especially when it comes to our mental environment. Something you can point to and say: that´s the way it is. Period. 
So I wanted to talk about emotions and where we feel them in the body, why we feel them just like we feel physical sensations and I wanted to focus on physical pain because we all go through it. 

I read some articles on this topic and I will link to the two articles I found the most helpful down below; everything in this post is based on those articles. 

It´s common knowledge that emotional pain triggers the same areas of the brain as physical pain: the anterior cingulate cortex, which is responsible for regulating your blood pressure and heart rate, decision-making, morality, emotions and reward anticipation, empathy and motor skills, to name a few of its tasks. 

Our brain is of course connected to our entire body. Evolutionarily speaking, the easiest path to take was to use the same neural system to detect physical and emotional pain. 

What happens when we feel emotional pain is the following: The anterior cingulate cortex is right next to the premotor area. This area is like the birthplace of an expression of an emotion and it connects to the motor cortex above it and this cortex gives the information of expressing an emotion to a specific muscle. 
Emotional pain can then be experienced in an area of the body where maybe it was supposed to be expressed, but didn`t: not screaming at someone may get translated in neck tension or a constricted throat and tight jaw.  
Anger that doesn´t get expressed may be experienced in the bowels. For me personally, I know that rage and hatred are feelings that seem to start in my stomach and travel up quickly to my throat and head as if I wanted to spit out some hurtful words.  

As you can see, all emotions have a "motor component", as Alan Fogel, Ph.D., puts it. 

 Photo by  Samuel Zeller  on  Unsplash

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

What about heartbreak? If you feel a certain sense of safety while being around a loved one, that feeling is also supported by an activation of the vagal-parasympathetic, which basically means that your heart rate is more relaxed and your breath can flow more easily- which is something happening in the chest. If you are going through a separation or feel like this sense of security is in danger, your breath and heart rate don´t synchronize anymore and your fight-or-flight-mode gets activated as if you were dealing with a physical threat. Your blood pressure increases and so does your heart rate. Which explains the pain you can feel or the sense of being constricted in your chest. 

What Alan Fogel also wrote for "Psychology Today", which I found extremely interesting is that "People who have been hurt by others often have retracted chests and downcast postures, which are muscular ways of protecting the heart and closing off the self from fully engaging with others for fear of being hurt again. And people in insecure relationships are more likely to have cardiovascular (and other health) problems than those who are more secure".

Human beings and other animals can also experience this sense of pain for others.

Now, what does this tell us? One could conclude, and I firmly believe this, that to get "better" emotionally, one has to fully experience and feel the upcoming emotion. The pain in the body, the quality, the color, the temperature, the thoughts- everything. And experience it to the best of ones´ability. This is definitely not easy, but the only true way to release the emotion. Because eventually, it will fade. It can get out of your system. Bypassing an emotion, trying to get around it, will leave its marks in the body. The emotion will always be in your thoughts somewhere so that you can experience it when you feel safe enough to do so, but it has to be felt. You´d never tell someone with a broken leg to not feel pain anymore when it´s not healed yet. Painkillers can only take away so much. But after a while, the pain of the broken leg gets less and less. You just have to go through the pain of a broken leg, you can´t not feel the pain and heal, it´s a part of the process. 

The next time something comes up for you- annoyance or anger, or even happiness (because we shouldn´t only do this with negative emotions: #equality), try to fully feel it to the best of your ability. And just sit with it quietly for as long as it takes to not feel it anymore or feel less of it. It may take a minute. It might take 30 minutes or multiple sessions. And I´m not saying it will be easy and work right the first time you try it, but bring a sense of curiosity to it. I just want you to give it a go and maybe report back on what happens. 

What do you think about this tactic? I´d love to know. 

The posts I drew all of this wonderful information from, are from...

...Psychology Today:

...The Scientific American:

Have a great day and stay here. 



Elza BuderComment