How Emotions Lead to Physical Pain

By Michael Amendolara, MD

I’ve been a licensed medical doctor for more than 25 years and Board Certified in Family Medicine since 1993. I learned about pain – acute pain and chronic pain – in medical school and throughout my training. I was always taught that pain has a physical, structural or organic cause – like arthritis or a herniated disc or a nerve problem. I was taught that stress and emotions can have an effect on pain – i.e. make it worse – but that it didn’t actually cause pain. I eventually learned that this isn’t true! Emotions – especially stress, tension and repressed or buried uncomfortable emotions definitely cause pain. In fact, these emotional states are most definitely the main cause of most types of chronic musculoskeletal pain including things like back pain, neck pain, tendonitis, fibromyalgia, TMJ pain, plantar fasciitis, carpal tunnel syndrome and chronic headaches. But how does this work? How do emotions lead to pain?

Many people feel stress & mental/emotional tension as they go about their days. But even more important that these when it comes to chronic pain are repressed or buried emotions. Many people in our society repress or stuff their uncomfortable emotions deep inside inside or acknowledging and expressing them. And not just people with mental illness. It’s just not acceptable in our society to fully express things like anger or rage so almost everyone represses these emotions to some extent. And, in many cases this leads to chronic pain. So, how does this work?

When there are repressed emotions in the unconscious mind (the part of your mind that you’re not consciously aware of) this affects how the brain functions. Specifically, it causes an increased activity of the brain’s autonomic nervous system – the part of the brain that controls automatic functions like breathing, heart beating and blood flow – things you aren’t usually consciously aware of. When this happens, the autonomic nervous system causes a decreased flow of blood to certain parts of the body – basically to wherever your pain is. And blood carries oxygen so when blood flow is decreased a little that means less oxygen gets to certain tissues (muscles, nerves, tendons) in the body. This mild decrease in oxygen is what leads to the pain. This is what we call the Pathway to Pain – repressed emotions lead to changes in the autonomic nervous system leading to decreased blood flow leading to decreased oxygen flow to tissues leading to pain.

Fortunately, this psychophysical process is very easy to reverse. It’s quite easy using very simple but powerful emotional/mental techniques to get in touch with the repressed emotions that set this whole cycle off. Once you do that, the physical pain goes away very quickly and stays away.

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