Emotions as a Source of Physical Pain



Pain is a decision made by the brain. This is a well-established but often difficult to comprehend fact. When we experience pain, we tend to think of the problem as there, in the location that is painful. But, for example, in a case of common pain like “runner’s knee,” there is often no problem in the knee itself. Let that sink in. The knee can be 100% healthy, undamaged, intact, yet scream at you so loudly that it keeps you from engaging in your favorite activity.

How can that be? Because pain occurs when the brain accumulates all the data coming from sensors throughout the body and decides, based on that data, to tell you it hurts. Sometimes this is the “right” decision; if the skin is penetrated and you’re bleeding profusely, then it makes sense for the brain to tell you about the injury by creating pain. But if the brain is getting bad data, then often pain and weakness will occur despite the fact that no physical problem actually exists.

This concept is important to understand when discussing the role of emotions in pain. It’s certainly not unusual for us to get odd looks when we trace problems through the nervous system and tell clients that the source is emotional. (This is not guesswork; we have definitive tools for coming to that conclusion.) When someone has been dealing with tangible, physical pain, it can be difficult to grasp that the pain is stemming from an emotional experience, not an actual physical problem. The inevitable response from clients is, “So I’m just imagining it?” Absolutely not.

The missing piece of the puzzle is understanding that emotions are data. And just as sensors in the knee can send bad information to the brain, emotions can also be data that results in the brain deciding to send a pain signal. The brain works like a computer. If you enter bad data (be it physical or emotional), you get bad output (pain). We all readily acknowledge that we can “hold stress” in our neck, or that in times of grief we can feel our guts clenching. Those are prime examples of how emotions can create real, potent physical changes in the body. We emphasize to clients that this is not something to just “get over” or address through talk therapy; these problems are hard wired into the nervous system and cannot be willed or talked away.

The emotional traumas we treat fall into several categories: past visual (e.g. the sight of a car speeding toward you prior to an accident), past auditory (e.g. the sound of a friend’s voice during an argument), internal dialogue (e.g. “I’m not good enough”), kinesthetic (e.g. the way you felt during a severe illness), future auditory (e.g. imagining your boss telling you that you’ve been laid off), and future visual (e.g. imagining the look on a loved one’s face when you report bad news).

If you’ve experienced an emotional trauma or stressor like the ones listed above, it’s likely that the effects are still trickling through your nervous system, even if you would swear that you’re “over it.” Again, the physical effects of an emotional experience become hard-wired into the nervous system. Sometimes the effects are small and of no real consequence. But there is not a person who has walked through our doors that doesn’t have a least one major emotional source of significant physical pain, weakness, or limitation.

If you’re ready to address the emotional sources of your pain and/or limited performance, or if you just want to “clean house” in an effort to optimize your health in the long term, we would love to help you accomplish that. As always, please feel free to call us if you have questions or would like a consultation.

***If you are struggling with emotional traumas causing severe depression and/or suicidal thoughts, please seek help here: http://www.metrocrisisservices.org/

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