Emotional pain is pain or hurt that originates from non-physical sources. Sometimes this emotional distress is the result of the actions of others. Other times, it might be the result of regret, grief, or loss. In other cases, it might be the result of an underlying mental health condition such as depression or anxiety.
No matter what the cause, this psychological pain can be intense and significantly affect many different areas of your life.
While it is often dismissed as being less serious than physical pain, it is important that emotional pain is taken seriously. There are a number of common feelings that are associated with emotional pain that can have an impact on both your physical and mental health.
Also Known As: Psychic pain, spiritual pain, psychalgia, emotional suffering, psychological pain, algopsychalia, soul pain, or mental pain
Symptoms of emotional pain can include feelings of:
- Deep sorrow, sadness, or depression
- Intense distress
- Loneliness and isolation
- Negative emotions
In some cases, feelings of emotional pain may lead to physical symptoms that do not have an identifiable physical cause. When these thoughts, feelings, or behaviors that are connected to somatic symptoms result in significant distress or interruption in a person’s ability to function, they may be diagnosed with a somatic symptom disorder.1
There are a number of different emotions that can lead to psychological pain. Everyone may experience these feelings from time to time, but when such feelings are intense and persistent, they can interfere with a person’s ability to function and perform normal daily activities.
Sadness is a natural emotion that is associated with loss and disappointment. However, if it doesn’t fade with time, it might point to a treatable condition, depression, that can impact your whole body.
If sadness lasts for more than just a few days and impacts your daily life, it may be necessary to seek out medical intervention.
You should consult with your doctor and be completely honest about any alcohol or drugs you have been using to cope and self-medicate.
Anger is a basic human emotion. It releases adrenaline, which increases muscle tension and speeds up breathing. This is the “fight” part of the “fight/flight/freeze” response. It can be mobilizing at times; however, if it’s not adequately managed, this response can lead to long-term physical consequences.2
As with anger, anxiety and fear both also release adrenaline. This generally results in jumpiness, a tendency to startle easily, the inability to relax (the “flight” response), or a feeling of being immobilized or stuck (the “freeze” response).
In some people, anxiety is a symptom of an anxiety disorder, and psychotherapy or prescription medication can help.
Anxiety can also be induced by substance use, in which case, quitting alcohol and drugs can often improve the symptoms. Tell your doctor about any alcohol or drug use to ensure you are properly diagnosed and treated.3
Shame and Guilt
Shame and guilt often result in a feeling of “butterflies” or weight in the stomach. Common among people with addictions, shame leads to and is worsened by the need for secrecy.4
If not addressed, prolonged feelings of shame and guilt may lead to physical symptoms.
Psychological pain can also contribute to or worsen physical pain in different areas of the body.5 Some common types of physical pain that may be connected to emotional distress include:
- Muscle pain, particularly in the neck
- Pain in the arms and legs
- Stomachache or gastrointestinal upset
Emotional pain can also be accompanied by:
- Aggression and violence
- Alcohol or substance use
- Attempted suicide
- Compulsive behaviors including shopping, gambling, and sex addiction
- Eating disorders
- Risky behaviors
- Suicidal thoughts
Such behaviors are often an attempt to diffuse or escape the intense dysphoria caused by emotional pain.
Physical vs. Emotional Pain
While physical pain and emotional pain are different, there is research that suggests that both types of pain may share some neurological similarities.7 Both emotional and physical pain are linked to changes in the prefrontal cortex and cingulate cortex.
Some researchers argue that rather than viewing emotional pain and physical pain as fundamentally different, they should be conceptualized as both being part of a broader pain continuum.8 Some types of pain are purely physical while others are purely emotional; but many times, pain lies somewhere in the middle.
Treatment for emotional pain often involves addressing the underlying source of the symptoms, so treatment often depends upon the individual diagnosis. Psychological conditions such as anxiety and depression may be treated with psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of the two.
Psychotherapy to treat emotional may involve the use of talk therapy, including specific approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
CBT focuses on identifying negative thoughts and emotions that contribute to emotional pain and then replacing these thoughts with more adaptive, realistic thoughts and behaviors.
Medications may sometimes be prescribed to address certain symptoms of emotional pain. Such medications may include:
- Antidepressants, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac (fluoxetine) and Zoloft (sertraline).
- Anti-anxiety medications, including benzodiazepines such as Valium (diazepam) and Xanax (alprazolam).
Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Sometimes alternative treatments such as acupuncture, Tai chi, yoga, biofeedback, hypnosis, and meditation may also be used to help alleviate symptoms of emotional pain.
Emotional pain can often feel as strong as physical pain and at times can even cause symptoms of pain throughout the body. It can also have a detrimental impact on both short-term and long-term mental well-being, so getting appropriate help and treatment is important.
Because emotional pain can be so distressing, people often turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, including drugs and alcohol. The problem is that while these methods might provide short-term relief, they cause greater damage in the long run.
Some healthier ways to manage your symptoms of emotional pain can include:
- Talking to someone: Social support is critical for emotional well-being, and talking to a trusted person, whether its a good friend or a counselor, can help.
- Exercising: Physical activity has been shown to be effective for improving mood, so it can be a good way to help deal with feelings of emotional pain.9 Blowing off feelings of anger with a run around the block is a better choice than acting out aggressively. Taking an afternoon stroll can do more to lift your mood than scrolling endlessly through social media posts.
- Practicing mindfulness: Mindfulness, a mental practice that involves focusing on the present moment, can be useful when you are trying to cope with difficult emotions such as anxiety, grief, sadness, and anger. The process involves not only becoming more aware of your emotions but also stress learning to accept and let go of the need to control or eliminate these emotions.
Most importantly, if symptoms of emotional pain are causing significant distress or interfering with your daily life, talk to your doctor or mental health professional.