Most of us tend to compartmentalize when it comes to physical and emotional health.
When we think about worries, anger and sadness, our automatic association is emotional health. It also makes sense that when we think about pain, we immediately think of our physical bodies.
Over recent decades, there has been more focus on the mind-body connection.
This is an important evolution in our knowledge of the complex system of the human machine. The independent studies of human biology and human psychology have taught us so much. It is fascinating to see the ways in which these two intersecting sciences are meshing to give us inside knowledge about our inner workings.
Thankfully, our brains and bodies automatically go about our business without any conscious attention from our cognitive processes. The magic that is our autonomic nervous system and all the relying parts and pieces work in a beautiful symphony of human functioning. All that’s left is overthinking the social media posts of our friends and relatives, and we do that with zeal.
When the study of the human mind began, it was judged a secondary science.
Mental and emotional health and the overall study of psychology was painted with a broad and judgmental brush. Originally considered spiritual ills and deficits of character, those with mental health needs were often feared, ridiculed and definitely misunderstood.
Terms such as “hysterical” were commonly used for women dealing with emotional health problems.
Sexual abuse trauma survivors were disbelieved and judged negatively by the male-dominated society. Is it any wonder then, that the well-respected and less-taboo world of physical health wanted to remain out of the fray of this frequently-mocked awkward science of mind?
Thankfully, we have come a long way since then. As the study of mental health and physical health have progressed, we have come to this sweet-spot in which we are discovering more about the connections between the two worlds. Pain is a prime example of this growth.
Physical pain was once believed to only stem from a physical disorder. The idea that one could experience pain due to emotional struggles was not even on the radar until recent years.
As it turns out, pain receptors in our brain don’t really care if we stubbed a toe or just got dumped. They are actively communicating in both directions; mind to body and body to mind. When there has been physical injury, it is easy to solve the riddle of “why do I hurt”.
When the pain is emotional and transfers to physical, it is less obvious. We might write off a random ache or pain as the price tag for over exertion or sitting in a weird position for too long. But what about pain that doesn’t have an identified source?
It is wise to check in with one’s mind when a physical cause has been ruled out.
Depression can manifest with a varied set of physical ailments including stomach discomfort, digestive issues and physical pain in the joints and muscles of the body. Anxiety commonly arrives with a handful of physical distress symptoms such as racing heart, stomach problems, headaches and dizziness.
Survivors of severe trauma can experience psychosomatic seizures and physiological arousal as a result of PTSD. The term psychosomatic emerged from the understanding that the feeling states of the mind (psycho) impacts the physical symptoms (somatic).
Somatization disorders are a variety of physical challenges that show up as a result of emotional health issues.
Do you get woozy when having blood drawn?
How about “tension headaches” or stress-related migraines?
Are these symptoms then “all in our heads?”
It is challenging to fight that mentality that the mind and body are two separate entities, as we have thought of it in such divergent terms for so long. Physical pain that shows up as a result of emotional pain is no less painful, nor is it less valid or legitimate.
So how can one treat emotional pain that turns into physical pain? After ruling out a physical health condition with your doctor, consider the following ways to examine the connection between your physical and emotional pain.
Deciphering The Clues
As you begin to pay attention to your physical pain and the possible connection to your emotional state, it’ll be important to do a little investigative work. It is crucial to make sure your pain isn’t the result of an organic ailment. Check with your doctor. It is far better to be safe than sorry when it comes to your health.
Observe when you have the pain, the location, the duration and the intensity. On a chart, devote a column for each of these categories, as well as a category for recent stressors or emotionally charged situations.
Location is important track in order to establish whether the pain is roving or consistently hits in one area. Duration and intensity might be reflections of the severity of the emotional distress. A chart over the course of a month’s time might offer helpful information about whether pain worsens when distress increases, and vice versa.
Pay attention to what helps reduce or better manage the pain. Do you find that your pain responds well to taking measures to reduce stress? Does it fade fairly fast after using a simple method of stress reduction such as meditation or stretching? Paying attention to the solutions doesn’t necessarily make the pain dissipate permanently.
You may continue to have more pain on more stressful or depressed days.
Listen to your body:
Physical pain is designed as a warning system that something is wrong. Even when pain is being caused by emotional distress, we need to pay attention to what our minds and bodies are telling us. We need to ask ourselves ‘what do I need physically and emotionally’ and work on a strategy to get those needs met.
As the science of mind and body progress, it will be fascinating to watch the developments of the field. Will we one day be able to read the specific pathways that transform emotional pain into physical distress? If there were a cure for emotional distress as it relates to physical discomfort, would you want it?
As the science progresses, the ethics of a variety of issues will also become an important part of the study. For now we are left to navigate the mystery a bit, and to find our own homegrown solutions to the mind-body conundrum.