The Brain Sees Physical and Emotional Pain Similarly

We’ve all heard of people dying of a broken heart. We’ve all felt physically hurt by something a friend or loved one said or did. It turns out our brains also view physical and emotional pain in a similar manner. Both physical and social pain share some of the same neural circuitry in our brains. The words we say to our loved ones have even more power than we may have realized, especially the power to cause real pain.

Rather than being a rare occurrence, University of Kentucky psychologist Nathan DeWall says we may each feel the emotional wounding of social exclusion an average of once per day. Because of the frequency of occurrence, scientists think our brains have evolved to use the same circuit that had been used for only physical pain to also handle emotional pain.

Brain scans were used to demonstrate the shared circuitry. A new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that two regions of the brain that were previously believed to process only physical pain were activated when a study participant viewed photos of a former lover and thought about the rejection they felt from him or her.

This dual circuitry may help us to understand why the pain of relationships can be so debilitating, and why depression or emotional distress can cause us so much physical and even long-term harm. It’s also a reminder that the words and behaviors that we show to our spouse and to others around us are critically important to their wellbeing. We cannot excuse harsh words or hurtful behavior any more than we can excuse physically hurting others, because their brain is accepting both as deeply harmful.

Brain experiments done at the University of Kentucky and reported in Physical Science in 2009 show a different kind of link between social and physical pain. One experiment found participants who took a daily dose of the painkiller acetaminophen were less sensitive to daily social slights than those who took a placebo. A second experiment involved participants who were repeatedly excluded from a game. Again, those who took the over-the-counter painkiller showed less brain activation to pain than the other participants who did not take the painkiller, although both said they were hurt by the exclusion. Researchers say taking painkillers is not the answer to dealing with feelings of hurt. Rather, the study demonstrates the brain responds similarly to both types of pain.  

University of Toronto researchers say they have also shown the body responds similarly to physical and emotional pain. In both cases, subjects report being numb immediately following an “injury” (physical or emotional). For several minutes they are desensitized. (Even those with major physical injuries can briefly walk and talk, as can those who are seriously wounded emotionally.) Then, the sensation of physical pain or feelings of hurt set in and can be described. Researchers say the lingering hurt may be a way for us to evaluate what happened and to question what we may have done differently for a better outcome.  

It’s clear that the emotional rollercoaster of our relationships can have a real and lasting impact on our wellbeing. Perhaps that’s why the immortal words of Def Leppard come to mind, “Love bites, love bleeds, it’s bringing me to my knees.” It’s not love that bites, but rather our failure to show love to those we say we care about.

You can read the full story here, Heartache or headache, pain process is similar, studies find from LA Times.

Photo: courtesy of PhotoXpress.com

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2 responses to “The Brain Sees Physical and Emotional Pain Similarly

  1. Thank you! This post explains much of what I am feeling as I walk through the departure of my wife from our marriage. I am trying to hold myself strong and yet I feel the pain of what I am not allowing myself to express in my body. Sometimes it feels hard to even draw a deep breath.

  2. My heart goes out to you and your family. Yes, the pain you are feeling is real, and perhaps it helps your mind to understand why you feel as bad as you do. Call upon resources around you as you manage your pain. Best to you.

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