Emotional pain hurts more than physical pain

Kinsale CBT therapist Linda Hamilton's Southern Star column comparing physical and emotional pain.
Emotional pain is wrongly seen as less important than physical pain.

Most of us know that it’s reckless to ignore physical pain. It’s important to recognise that the same is true of emotional pain, as I argued in last week's Southern Star. The column is reproduced below.


Which is worse – physical pain or emotional pain?


One might instinctively think the former is more important. After all, people generally pay a lot more attention to their physical health than their emotional health. When someone says that “health is wealth”, they’re usually referring to physical health. Whereas it’s a cultural norm to periodically check in with your doctor to get a physical check-up and make sure everything is working as it should be, there’s no such thing, really, as an annual psychological check-up.


If you pause for a minute, however, you’ll realise the significance of emotional pain. In Breaking Bad, arch-villain Gus Fring threatens the show’s protagonist, Walter White, saying: ‘If you try to interfere... I will kill your wife. I will kill your son. I will kill your infant daughter’. Gangsters, notes British psychologist and Overcoming Depression author Prof. Paul Gilbert, often threaten to harm the children of their enemies rather than their actual enemy, precisely because they recognise that the thought of emotional pain is worse than the thought of physical pain.


If you broke your leg many years ago, you’ll likely experience little if any distress when you recall the event. However, if you recall an event that caused psychological pain – the death of a loved one, a cruel comment from school or work bullies, being rejected by a romantic love interest – you will likely experience a fair degree of emotional pain. As a general rule, notes Dr Guy Winch in Psychology Today, physical pain “usually leaves few echoes” whereas emotional pain “leaves numerous reminders, associations and triggers that reactivate our pain when we encounter them”.


Similarly, painful emotional experiences shape people much more than painful physical experiences, impacting their mental health and self-esteem. A bullied child may grow up to be an introverted and under-confident adult; someone who lived in fear at an early age might develop chronic anxiety and desperately avoid all kinds of situations which provoke uncertainty; social isolation and rejection can shape negative thinking patterns that drive hopelessness, anger and all kinds of toxic emotions. 



Now, the “physical or emotional pain?” is not some kind of competition. I’m not belittling physical pain or downplaying the ill effects of poor physical health, which can often be emotionally traumatic. Indeed, there are lots of similarities between physical and emotional pain. Studies have shown, for example, that emotional rejection activates the same areas of the brain that are activated during physical pain.


Rather, the point is that we continue to “not yet treat emotional pain as equivalent to physical pain”, as psychotherapist Dr Christine Dunkley notes on her blog. “Physical injury motivates us to move with urgency towards the injured party, to see what we can do to help”, but the same is not true of emotional pain, which all too often is ignored or downplayed. The same point is made by Guy Winch, who argues people should become versed in “emotional first aid”. When a stranger gets hit by a car, “we wince, gasp, or even scream and run to see if they’re okay”, he writes. “But when we see a stranger get bullied or taunted we are unlikely to do any of those things”. 



The importance of compassion and empathy should not be underestimated. Prof Gilbert defines compassion as “a basic kindness, with a deep awareness of the suffering of oneself and of other living things, coupled with the wish and effort to relieve it”. There are, he adds, four key components to compassion – awareness (being attentive and sensitive to emotional suffering, rather than dismissing it as “just anxiety”); normalising (recognising that everyone experiences emotional pain, that one is not alone or at fault); kindness (responding to pain with care and concern, rather than shying away or ignoring it); and alleviation (trying to alleviate emotional pain, whether that be by providing comfort, providing a helpful perspective regarding the problem, or having the strength and courage to take the actions necessary to address the problem).


 Most of us know that it’s reckless to ignore physical pain or discomfort. It’s important to recognise that the same is true of emotional pain.