Most people have felt emotional pain at some point in their lives. From breakups to grief, life can throw painful curveballs at us, but there’s no mental painkiller to help us deal with the pain. So how can you deal with it?
While there’s no fast-acting mental painkiller, there are lots of ways to deal with emotional pain. Some of them, like alcohol and other addictive substances, seem effective, but only short-term, and they impair functioning in other areas. Others, like distracting yourself by focusing solely on work or a hobby, can be beneficial, but they won’t eliminate the cause of the pain. Interventions like therapy can be effective in both relieving the pain and eliminating its cause, but they can be time-consuming and expensive.
In this article, I’ll take a look at the different ways of dealing with emotional pain, and the pros and cons of each method.
- The relationship between physical and emotional pain
- Why does emotional pain hurt so bad?
- How not to deal with emotional pain
- How to deal with emotional pain
- Wrapping up
The relationship between physical and emotional pain
Physical pain can be sharp or dull, unbearably strong, or just a mild discomfort, it can last for a moment or for years. For most people, it’s not a pleasant experience, and I, for one, have questioned why we need it in the first place.
But in my more rational moments, I know that pain is there to protect us. Pain is our body’s way to alert us that something is wrong and our health might be in danger.
For example, running with an already aching ankle can cause further damage, and not feeling a cut would mean walking around with an open wound without us even noticing it.
And no matter how strange it might sound, emotional pain is there for our protection, too. It’s there to tell us that something is wrong and we should seek help. The feelings of hurt and loneliness can drive us to seek the company of friends and family after a break-up, and the feeling of rejection when we don’t get the job we wanted can prompt us to focus on ourselves or other projects.
Studies on emotional pain vs physical pain
That’s not the only similarity between emotional and physical pain. There is evidence that social pain and physical pain rely on the same brain areas.
A 2012 review found that experiences of social pain activate neural regions that are also involved in physical pain processing. In addition, it seems that people who are more sensitive to one kind of pain are also more sensitive to the other and that factors that increase or decrease one kind of pain alter the other in a similar way.
Similar results were found in a 2011 study, which reports that when feelings of rejection are elicited by having people look at a picture of their ex-partner after a recent break-up, brain areas that support the sensory components of physical pain become active.
Why does emotional pain hurt so bad?
When we talk about heartbreak, we usually mean it metaphorically. But sometimes, it feels like the emotional pain has a physical manifestation - like our heart has actually broken.
According to The Scientific American, one of the reasons lies in biology. There’s part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) that regulates emotions and emotional reactions to pain. When we experience something very stressful, like a break-up, the ACC may respond by increasing the activity of the vagus nerve, which connects the brainstem to the neck, chest, and abdomen. Overstimulation of the vagus nerve can cause pain and nausea, which causes the physical sensation of a broken heart.
Another reason might lie in the hard-to-manage nature of emotional pain. Physical pain is generally quite easy to alleviate, while emotional pain can stump even the most self-aware of us. Thus, the pain seems much stronger.
How not to deal with emotional pain
Dealing with emotional pain is hard, which makes us seek easier options. However, some of the most common methods aren’t the best.
1. Alcohol and other substances
There is a certain romanticized idea of using alcohol to numb the pain. Whether it’s drinking a bottle of wine with your best friends while you curse out an ex, or using whiskey as a sleeping aid to take your mind off the constant loneliness, alcohol seems like an easy fix.
Unfortunately, it works only short-term and doesn’t solve the cause of the pain. Alcohol is also highly addictive and if anything, will cause you more problems.
That isn’t to say you can’t have a beer after a hard day or a glass of wine at dinner. But numbing yourself to the pain isn’t going to solve your problems.
2. Hurting others
Pain can make us lash out at others, and while they may sometimes deserve it, being angry at other people will not make the pain go away.
It’s perfectly natural to be angry at those who have wronged us - at least in our eyes. Addressing anger and its causes can be a powerful way to heal and strengthen a relationship.
However, hurting someone will rarely bring the catharsis we hope for. Instead, it can leave us wracked with guilt or simply ashamed.
3. Avoiding the pain
Distraction is sometimes a good strategy, but not always. While burying yourself in work can bring the relief we need, it won’t solve the cause of the pain and there may come a time when we have to face the facts. Why delay it?
Finding fun things to do to avoid thinking about emotional pain all the time is a part of the recovery process, but completely avoiding dealing with the pain will only prolong the process.
How to deal with emotional pain
Dealing with emotional pain is hard, but it’s not impossible, especially when you realize and accept that there are no easy fixes. It can be tempting to pick an easier way, but it’s better to endure some extra discomfort for a full recovery.
1. Face the pain
You cannot heal something you don’t accept as a reality. Accept the pain and the reason behind it and don’t try to fight it or push it away.
Rather, become friends with the pain. Yes, I know how silly this sounds. But examining the pain closely and finding out what it’s trying to tell you will help you start moving in the right direction towards healing.
2. Learn to cope with your emotions
Often, the pain is exacerbated by the emotions of anger, sadness, or fear. Thus, a good way to learn how to handle emotional pain is to learn how to handle emotions.
From meditation and mindfulness to yoga and journaling, there are dozens of ways to cope with your emotions in a healthy way. It may take you a little while to figure out which methods work best for you, but once you do, you have a great tool in your emotional toolbox.
3. Seek help
We have a saying in Estonia, “jagatud mure on pool muret”. It can be translated as, “sharing a worry will halve it”, and the idea behind it is that it’s easier to solve a problem with some help.
Speaking with friends can help you feel better and have a laugh during a hard time, and sometimes simply talking about something that’s weighing heavily on your mind will help.
If you’ve suffered a trauma or simply see that regulating your emotions and venting to friends isn’t helping, don’t be afraid to seek professional help. You don’t have to visit a psychiatrist or therapist right away, an online counselor can be the first step. Of course, this step can be time-consuming and costly, but sometimes, there is no other way to heal the pain.
Experience-focused counselors, who help people with a problem they have personally experienced and overcome, can also be a great resource when your pain is very specific, like grief.
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Dealing with emotional pain can be difficult and it may seem easier to try and distract or numb yourself to the pain. While these strategies might work short-term, the effects won’t last and you find yourself back at square one. Facing and accepting the pain for what it is, learning how to deal with your emotions, and seeking help are healthier ways to deal with emotional pain, and what’s more important - the effects will last.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments. How did you get over a difficult break-up or the loss of a loved one? What’s your best tip for dealing with emotional pain?