Physical and Emotional “pain”—The same to the brain.

About a year ago, a column (Ask the Doctors) appeared in my local newspaper written by two medical doctors in which these doctors discussed a study conducted by Naomi Eisenberger, Ph.D. at UCLA. Dr. Eisenberger discovered that the same parts of the brain which react to physical pain also react to emotional pain.

The two doctors concluded from a psycho-evolutionary perspective that “physical pain alerts us to injury (and) emotional pain warns us that we may be drifting too far from our fellow humans.  Both types of pain put us at grave risk (and) we need to take emotional pain just as seriously as we do physical pain. (Emphasis added.)”

I found this article fascinating as it is highly consistent with the Emotions as Tools Model I have written about in this blog and my two Amazon bestselling books.

Pain is a messenger that alerts us to a situation that needs our attention and prepares us to take specific action.

Examples of physical pain include:

You touch the hot handle on a pan, you feel pain, and you remove your hand.

You pick up an object, your back says “ouch”, and you stay away from lifting anything for a while.

If you don’t have pain sensors which give you this kind of feedback, you can find yourself in serious trouble.  I know of a person who was born with no nerves in his legs.  While this is not usually an issue for him as he gets around in his wheel chair, is an athlete, and is “normal” in every way, when he was a young man, some hot grease fell on his legs, he did not know it, and he sustained some nasty burns.

Emotions, in this context, are the same as the pain sensors in your body. And, it is the reason that you want to welcome your emotions eventhough they may sometimes may be experienced as painful or seem to force you to do things you later regret.

By the way, your emotions never force you to do anything.  All your behavior comes from the decisions you make.

The primary emotions (mad, sad, fear, and disgust) evolved as primitive threat detectors.  (The other two primary emotions of glad and surprise have different functions.)

The primitive emotional threat detectors work just like the security detectors (smoke, carbon monoxide, glass break, motion, etc) in your house which constantly scan your surroundings and when they detect a specific threat, they send out an alarm and give you the opportunity to take corrective action.

Each emotion looks for a specific threat.

  • Mad (anger) reacts to a threat you believe you can eliminate by throwing enough force at it and prepares you for battle.
  • Sad reacts to loss and prepares you to retreat and heal.
  • Fear detects a threat that will kill you and motivates you to escape.
  • Disgust detects a distasteful or nauseating situation and leads you to avoid the noxious stimuli.

But, unlike your home detectors, whose only function is to alert you so that you can take action to avoid a potentially life threatening situation, your emotions both alert you to a possible threat and prepare your body to take action.

It is through your body that you become aware of your emotions and the information they are communicating to you about how you perceive your surroundings.

If you get to know your body, you learn to distinguish the pain you need to listen to and heed immediately and the pain you can ignore and work through.

One example those of you who work out in the gym will be able to relate to is the “pain” you feel when you exercise. Your muscles “hurt” but you know the difference between muscle burn and muscle strain.

Burn is good, strain is not.

Years ago, I did something to my back and I was out of work for about 6 months.  I went to my physician, tried OTC pain meds, massage, acupuncture and chiropractic.  I was “confined” to the couch, nothing seemed to work and nothing could be found that was wrong.

When I came across a book suggesting that back pain  could be psychological, I decided the pain was “in my head”.  I then chose to master my pain.  This involved walking, mild exercise, and working through the pain.  The pain eventually went away and has never returned.

Now, I am not a physician and I am not saying you should do as I did.  This was my pain and my “intervention” worked for me. My point is that I learned that this particular pain, while it did hurt, could be ignored.

When it comes to your emotions, people do not know how to interpret, or adequately deal with their “pain”.  They tend to assume that the emotion controls them, and to give in to the emotion by taking an action they later regret.

They do not understand that they can master their emotions and use them as tools to improve their lives.

The Anger Mastery Cycle (AMC), a copy of which you can download by scrolling up to the Welcome Post above and which is specific to anger , presents a model that clearly shows you how to deal with all emotions.

Notice that once you identify (label) the message of the emotion (anger in this case),  you manage the emotion and S.T.O.P. the process.  This involves stopping the reaction (taking a breath),  taking a step back, observing, and practicing emotional intelligence. You then begin to master the emotion by assessing what is going on and choosing a response.

You begin to demystify and master your emotions when you think of them in the same way you think of physical pain. That your brain already does this is a bonus.

An analogy…

There is an electronic perimeter around the US which is constantly monitored.  If a plane, a missile or a flock of geese cross that perimeter, we know about it because an “Alert” is sounded. This alert is a message that must then assessed so that any needed action can be taken.

Do we scramble the jets, arm the nukes, or decide it’s a false alarm?

Pain sensors as messengers…

The pain sensors in your body are tools which give you information you have to assess and evaluate.  The pain message says “danger”.  You have to decide how you want to respond.

Emotions as messengers…

It is the same with your emotions.  They may signal danger or a misunderstanding.

  • In the case of anger, you have to decide  if you will seek more information, go to battle, or just ignore the “false alarm”.
  • In the case of fear, you need to escape and later think about what you can learn.
  • In the case of sadness, you need to find some time to recluse, recover and rebound.
  • In the case of disgust, you need to avoid and protect.

When asked, some people might say that they would like to get rid of their emotions because they are messy, do not feel good, and seem to cause bad behavior.  Yes, they can be messy and not feel good.  No, they do not cause behavior.

If you were to ask someone with chronic pain if they wished there was no such thing as pain, they might, understandably, want to eliminate pain.

But, physical pain and emotional pain protect us.  The goal is knowing how to interpret pain and how to master it.

I welcome your comments.