By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC
Many people have experienced some sort of physical pain. Whether it be a dull achy pain that often accompanies arthritis, or a sharp and stabbing pain that comes from an immediate injury, you know you are experiencing something you would prefer not to.
But when it comes to emotional pain, we struggle to label it. In today’s post, we are going to talk about how “emotional pain” works in the brain.
It is important to note something about our brains: they experience pain differently than any other part of our body. In addition to the searing and burning pain that comes with an injury, your brain experiences emotional bursts that provide information.
When we are experiencing emotional pain (like stress, depression, or grief), there are similarities with how our brains light up. The thalamus, which regulates our involuntary activities (like your heart beating and your breathing), is activated when we start to experience emotional pain. It gets the message you are in pain from your insula (responsible for processing sensory information), your pregenual cingulate cortex that calls for an emotional response (Fogel, 2012). Essentially, your brain processes all your pain the same way. How neat is that!?
Emotional inflammation: what is it
In Lisa Van Susteren and Stacy Colino’s book, Emotional Inflammation: Discover Your Triggers and Reclaim Your Equilibrium During Anxious Times, she uses the term, emotional inflammation. By their definition, “emotional inflammation is the phenomenon of feeling anxious or outraged, unusually stressed out or fearful about the future, hyperreactive, agitated or otherwise on edge due to simply living in today’s tumultuous world” (Colino et Al, 2020).
Life today has naturally increased our brain’s emotional pain. Between pandemics, political turmoil, inflation and an increase in the cost of living, life has been hard. Experiencing these emotional pains, long-term, can actually change your brain.
Emotional pain’s impact on the body
Experiencing chronic stress and emotional pain can create issues not just within your brain, but within your body. In a study done by Jene Twinge and Thomas Joiner in 2020, they showed that prolonged stress and anger (a type of emotional pain) had not just an impact on blood pressure (it made it sky rocket), but actual inflammation markers in your body(Twinge et Al, 2020). This immune response that your body has to the emotional pain, over time, makes you more likely to experience:
- getting sick more often
- increased chances of developing heart disease, stroke, and even some types of cancers
- develop forgetfulness and fatigue
- low energy levels
- a more intense response to physical pain as your body is already exhibiting pain responses
This increased inflammation response can also impact other parts of your brain. In another study done by Vicktoriya Maydych in 2012, she showed that experiencing that chronic emotional inflammation can:
- increase the levels of a stress hormone called cortisol. This can contribute to keeping you perpetually stressed and feeling that emotional pain
- shrink the size of your hypothalamus, which controls the release of your hormones
- decrease the size of your hippocampus, which stores your memories and emotions related to those memories
- increase the intensity of your emotional responses to situations
- increase your risk of developing depression
- impact your ability to make decisions
- enhance your risk of developing not-so-effective coping skills (for example, alcoholism, self-harming behavior, and reckless behavior)
Healing emotional inflammation
Now to answer the $1,000,000 question: how do we heal emotional inflammation?
I think mental health programs have put a lot of pressure on individuals to sort through their pain. Going back to physical pains such as a hot stove or breaking a leg. We support the individual by having them access specialists in those areas and even train civilians on how to do first aid to help quickly reduce inflammation of an injury.
So I don’t believe the question is about “how do I reduce my emotional inflammation” but rather, “how can we recognize the signs of emotional inflammation and who can help with easing the flare-ups?”– Tia Bell
Identifying your feelings
Learning to recognize your feelings and labeling them does a lot for healing emotional inflammation. In a study done by Eva-Maria Gortner and her team in 2006, people were able to decrease their emotional pain (specifically depression) over a 6-month period by simply identifying and writing down their emotions.
- Track habits or patterns increasing your emotional inflammation.
- Keep track of changes you’ve made and progress you are making.
- Identify changes that could indicate changes in your mental health.
- Allow you to take time and space from difficult emotions and come back to them with new energy and eyes.
- And so much more
Using CBT skills
It is true. When you use CBT skills to fact-check your emotions, you are engaging your problem-solving part of your brain (the prefrontal cortex) to help identify if what your feelings are telling you is indeed accurate. As you know, when we are already experiencing stress, the part of your brain responsible for emotional responses (a.k.a. – that darn amygdala) reacts a lot faster, and a lot more intense.
One particular CBT skill that helps with checking your emotions is called Socratic Questioning. These types of questions are great for helping your (and your brain) see the full perspective of the situation you are facing.
Turn off the media
Turning off any source of media (especially news media outlets) allows your brain to take a break from the negativity and fear they produce. Interesting fact: 2/3 of Americans share that the facts and stories presented in the news produce more stress in their lives (APA 2017). That was in 2017, can you imagine those numbers now!?
Taking media breaks during your day (or even a few days without news media outlets) has shown to decrease stress levels and emotional inflammation.
I want to thank you for taking time to really dive deep into emotional inflammation and ways you can combat it.
- American Psychological Association (2017). APA Stress in America™ Survey: US at ‘Lowest Point We Can Remember;’ Future of Nation Most Commonly Reported Source of Stress. Retrieved 5/23/2022 from APA Stress in America™ Survey: US at ‘lowest point we can remember;’ future of nation most commonly reported source of stress
- Colino, S., and Van Susteren, L. (2020). Emotional Inflammation: Discover Your Triggers and Reclaim Your Equilibrium During Anxious Times. Sounds True Publishing. Read 5/18/2020
- Fogel, Alan (2012). Emotional and Physical Pain Activate Similar Brain Regions: Where does emotion hurt in the body? Retrieved from Psychology Today; Emotional and Physical Pain Activate Similar Brain Regions | Psychology Today
- Gortner EM, Rude SS, Pennebaker JW. Benefits of expressive writing in lowering rumination and depressive symptoms. Behav Ther. 2006 Sep;37(3):292-303. doi: 10.1016/j.beth.2006.01.004. Epub 2006 May 30. PMID: 16942980.
- Maydych V. The Interplay Between Stress, Inflammation, and Emotional Attention: Relevance for Depression. Front Neurosci. 2019;13:384. Published 2019 Apr 24. doi:10.3389/fnins.2019.00384
- Twenge, J., & Joiner, T. E. (2020, May 7). Mental distress among U.S. adults during the COVID-19 pandemic. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/wc8ud
- Yam, M. F., Loh, Y. C., Tan, C. S., Khadijah Adam, S., Abdul Manan, N., & Basir, R. (2018). General Pathways of Pain Sensation and the Major Neurotransmitters Involved in Pain Regulation. International journal of molecular sciences, 19(8), 2164. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms19082164