I usually think of of physical pain and emotional pain as fairly separate phenomena. Physical pain is caused by certain things (like a wound), and cured by certain things (like a pain medication). Emotional pain is usually caused by a totally different set of things (like a bad breakup) and cured by different things (like talking to friends over a bottle of wine).
But I came across a couple of recent studies that suggest that physical pain and emotional pain might be more enmeshed in the brain than I knew. Here they are:
- A pilot study done at the University of Florida found that acetaminophen (found in Tylenol) may work for hurt feelings as well as a hurting body. The researcher hypothesizes that “social pain piggybacks onto physical pain and the two systems sort of bleed into each other,” which would explain why study subjects who took acetaminophen showed less activity in areas of the brain associated with social rejection, even though it’s designed as a treatment for physical pain.
- An article in Scientific American on “nonsuicidal self-injury” (NSSI)–such as cutting yourself–also draws out the connection between physical and emotional pain. It describes a series of studies that show the physical pain of NSSI and the relief associated with the end of the pain both lead to LESS activity in the parts of the brain where negative emotions reside. In other words, there’s a direct connection between physical pain and relief, and emotional pain and relief.
The research is early, but it’s interesting stuff!