The human body is a wonderful thing. It regulates itself, maintains itself fairly well, and has a sophisticated system to warn us of malfunctions. When wear and tear occur, we take it in for maintenance.
Our emotional health, though, gets far less attention.
A cut, untended, will become infected. We know that for a fact. So we don’t allow that to happen. We clean the wound, bandage it, and if bad enough, go to the doctor.
But heartbreak or disappointment? Oh, we allow those to fester! We’ll go out of our way to pretend there’s no injury, and when the emotional injury worsens or spreads to other areas of our lives, we’ll ignore that too.
Here are 13 ways in which emotional pain is actually more challenging than physical pain (not to dismiss physical pain as insignificant in ANY way):
1. Repetitive Pain
Emotional pain can be re-lived over and over without any easing of pain or symptoms. Often, the more we obsess on a particular emotional pain, the worse it gets.
2. Cause Unknown
Physical pain usually has a clear cause. Emotional pain can be a cloudy thing full of twists and tangles that hamper the identification of a root cause.
Sadness endures. A broken arm will set after a few months. A broken heart can seem endless.
There’s a degree of self-anger when it comes to emotional pain. With the body, we immediately accept that illness or distress will occur; they’re part of human life. Yet we think we’re supposed to be exempt from emotional pain, and so when we experience it, we get angry at ourselves for some vaguely-perceived lack of gumption.
Self-recrimination has never kept an arm from healing, but it’s done more than its fair share against souls and psyches.
5. The Heavy Shadow
Emotional pain brings with it an omnipresent, invisible cloud. Physical pain tends to elicit immediate sympathy, but we believe our emotional pain carries with it the stigma of an expiration date: grief shouldn’t last overlong; heartbreak is unseemly unless you’re putting on a brave face; disappointment is commensurate with how badly you wanted something yet failed to achieve it due to your own deficiencies.
The heavy, invisible weights we think others pile atop our mental/emotional pains delay or completely derail our healing.
Outside of contagious illnesses, physical pain is limited to yourself. Emotional pain is readily transferred to others. This occurs via a number of psychological mechanisms, but the most common is Displacement, where we transfer negative feelings to someone or something else rather than confront the initial cause (and, in confronting, possibly heal quicker or avoid injury altogether).
We dread the needle as it approaches, but once the poke is done, it’s done. The anticipation of emotional pain (say, a breakup with a lover or falling out with a friend) creates lengthy states of unease leading up to the anticipated pain, then reinforces that pain days, months, or even years after the event.
Emotional pain can strike, flare up, or reoccur at any time, even on days you feel your most emotionally secure. Something super tiny might trigger the emotional outbreak, something so unrelated to the original cause that even a clear summer day might blindside you.
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9. Phantom Pain
At times, the emotional pain you feel isn’t even your own. Empathy, compassion, basic human decency – all of these can tune us into the emotional pain of others, leaving us hurt, confused, and fearful until the feelings pass.
Perhaps the strangest way that emotional pain is worse than physical pain is the addictive quality that accompanies feeling bad. Yes, there are those who enjoy physical pain, but they’re way outnumbered by those who receive a strange form of comfort via the sympathies of others.
In extreme cases this type of person has a tendency to somehow always move from one emotional distress to another.
11. Societal Expectations
Because emotional pain is invisible, we think it’s like air: present, but something we shouldn’t need to think about. We expect it to be nebulous and not affect any other aspect of our lives, i.e. our jobs, our relationships, or any of the day-to-day actions we have to take.
This “shake it off and function normally” societal drive leads to feelings of shame and inadequacy when emotional pain grips too tightly to be shaken off, exacerbating an already unstable situation.
Yet no one “shakes off” a lacerated eye, a broken rib, or diabetic complications.
12. Untreated Injury
Unfortunately, emotional pain is too often treated as a sign of weakness, so we try to find ways to ignore or bury our pain, which does nothing but increase our stress levels (which in turn affects physical health).
It’s astounding that in our age of unparalleled scientific advances and new understandings of body/mind connection, therapy, counseling, or even just simple introspective meditation continue to carry stigmas. Because of these stigmas, many people don’t seek out help when life brings them to an emotional low.
The truth is, we all could use some emotional, mental, and spiritual assistance. No matter the invisible injury, there’s no shame in needing to heal. Knowing that you can – and will – heal helps.
Physical pain is usually easily pinpointed. If your arm hurts, you know which one it is, and it doesn’t cause your other arm to hurt. If you have a cold you know which parts of the body are likely to be affected.
Emotional pain, however, seeps outward to every corner of your entire body. Emotional distress will cause headaches, backaches, digestive problems, sleep problems, attention deficits, sexual frustration… pain is essentially everywhere, all the time until – and unless – there’s healing.
Pain Is Pain
Emotional pain is as real as physical pain. It’s a product of external damage just as much as a cut finger is. Everyone experiences emotional pain; everyone heals in different ways and at different rates, same as the body’s immune and regenerative systems work to heal bodily damage.
When we free ourselves from the illusion that we’re supposed to be strong when it comes to emotional distress, or that emotional pain is “all in the mind,” we allow ourselves to be human instead of cardboard cutouts not meant to cry, rage, or feel depressed.
Perhaps the saddest way that emotional pain is worse than physical pain is that we leave emotional pain outdoors alone when, honestly, it heals a lot quicker in the company and hearth of those who care.