Physical pain and the mind: an intricate relationship

Updated: 4 days ago

Once upon a time, one could speak of a distinction between mind and body processes. However, the current view suggests it is impossible to separate one from the other. This is supported by the insurmountable number of pieces of evidence from psychology, neuroscience and biology. It is now largely accepted that most if not all physical illnesses have a mental basis and vice versa. This includes mild to serious physical illnesses such as back pains, cancer, diabetes, etc.

When mental factors are the predominant cause of a physical illness this is usually termed psychosomatic or somatoform disorders. One of the most predominant areas of studies in this area is the relationship between emotions and physical pain. First, emotions and physical pain are closely linked because they share similar psychobiological and neural pathways. Second, our relationship with emotions is strongly predictive of physical pain manifestations. But how can one know if our emotions are predominantly caused by emotions or mental factors?

A good question without any clear-cut answer. However, there are a number of accepted ways to rule out that our pain is not caused by mental factors. A good starting point is to rule out the presence of any actual physical injury. However, this is not always possible and may even require a visit to our local clinic or hospital. Alternative, taking notes on whether the pain is specific and recurrent despite relevant attempts to alleviate it may be a cue of the pain having a strong mental basis.

Why must emotions manifest physically?

Emotions carry relevant information that is unique to the individual and their contextual experience. Difficulties associated with our emotions mean difficulties making sense of our unique intra and interpersonal experiences. One of our most intimate intra-personal experiences is our relationship with our bodies. This can mean knowing when to give our body a break or knowing what our body needs to return to optimal functioning. The mind and body are in constant communication to provide us with relevant information about our experiences. We may experience this ongoing communication in the form of fatigue, irritability and restlessness.

When we are unable to make sense of our intrapersonal experiences this is commonly experienced physically. For example, neglecting or failing to notice fatigue over a period of time may lead to physical pain, impulsivity and social withdrawals – all symptoms that are strongly related to burnout. Furthermore, being oblivious to what is needed to return our body to optimal functioning may lead to a vicious cycle of low awareness or neglect and pain exacerbation. Over time, this can open up the door to many mental and physical illnesses because of the close inter-relationship between emotions and the nervous system. Dysregulation of one leads to the dysregulation of the other and along with that the malfunctioning of key psychobiological processes working outside of awareness to keep us safe and optimal.

The physical manifestation of emotions is seen in all walks of life. From employee burnout and sick days in organisations, athletes susceptibility to injury and recurrent physical pain in the larger population even despite regular visits to the massage parlour.

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