Emotional and Physical Pain: They Aren’t so Different

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.

When it comes to physical pain and our brain, it is important to know how it all works. When we first encounter a painful situation (for example, stubbing your little toe on a piece of furniture or wall corner), your brain almost immediately starts the process to react with the jumping up and down while saying “OWWWWWWIEE!” Did your know your brain does something similar for emotional pain?

This post will go over how the pain reacts to both physical and emotional pain, as well as things that can increase your pain perception.

Pain and the Brain

When we experience pain, it travels through the lateral spinothalamic tract. The Lateral Spinothalamic Tract refers to the pathway involved when we experience a physical pain response. This tract includes the nerves that run throughout your body, your spinal cord, the midbrain (which includes the part of your brain responsible for involuntary body responses, sensory information, and emotions), and your thalamus (which is responsible for sensory information) (Yam et Al, 2018).

If we use the example of stubbing your little toe again, the nerves in your foot transmit the information of pain to your spinal cord, which runs the message up to a part of your brain called the medulla (responsible for involuntary body actions, like breathing and heart rate). Once the medulla has agreed that the pain response is, indeed, needed, it will tell the thalamus. The thalamus talks to your pregenual cingulate cortex (responsible for helping with emotional responses) and your insula (which processes sensory information). After it collaborates with these parts of your brain, your thalamus agrees that saying “ouch!” is the best way to respond.

Emotional pain

It is important to note something about our brains: they experience pain differently than any other part of our body. Rather than having 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, 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 Inflammation: Discover Your Triggers and Reclaim Your Equilibrium During Anxious Times is a book that I highly recommend. Use the picture to get your copy!

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 your body has to the emotional pain, over time, makes you more likely to experience:

  • obesity
  • 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
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia (yes, that is a real thing)

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 aid in keeping her 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?

Healing any kind of pain, emotional or physical, takes time. It also takes meeting your needs. These needs include

  1. nutritional needs
  2. maintaining your body’s circadian rhythms
  3. exercise on a regular basis
  4. seek out help (both physical and emotional) to learn more about what your needs are

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.

The idea of writing down your emotions isn’t a new one. If you have ever kept a journal, you know there are a lot of benefits from writing things down. Journaling can help you:

  1. track habits or patterns increasing your emotional inflammation
  2. keep track of changes you’ve made and progress you are making
  3. identify changes that could indicate changes in your mental health
  4. allow you to take time and space from difficult emotions and come back to them with new energy and eyes
  5. 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 read about emotional inflammation and how it impacts your entire body. This goes to show truly how much mental health is part of your physical health.

To recap this post:
– your brain experiences physical and emotional pain in the same places
– chronic emotional pain can lead to emotional inflammation
– mental health can impact your physical health
– mental health is physical health


  • 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 sciences19(8), 2164. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms19082164

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3 responses to “Emotional and Physical Pain: They Aren’t so Different”

  1. Really great article and information I can definitely use in my life. Thanks!

  2. Thank you for this informative post on the connection between physical and emotional pain, as well as the impact of emotional inflammation on our overall well-being. It’s fascinating to learn how our brains process both types of pain and how similar the mechanisms can be.

    Understanding how pain travels through the lateral spinothalamic tract and engages various parts of the brain, such as the medulla, thalamus, pregenual cingulate cortex, and insula, sheds light on the complex nature of our pain responses. It’s intriguing to see that emotional pain activates similar regions and pathways, highlighting the interconnectedness of physical and emotional experiences.

    Your mention of emotional inflammation is particularly thought-provoking. In today’s tumultuous world, it’s no wonder that our brains can experience heightened emotional responses and stress. The impact of chronic emotional pain on the body, including increased inflammation markers, elevated blood pressure, and potential health risks, emphasizes the importance of addressing emotional well-being alongside physical health.

    1. It feels great to know this post was so helpful and thought provoking

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