Suffering: Why Do We Feel Emotional Pain?


As unpleasant as it can be, emotional pain is a tool that we can use. On the other hand, we suffer when we fail to meet our own needs and nurture ourselves in difficult emotional times. The worst suffering comes from unmet needs we have no power over. However, many of us suffer unnecessarily, in situations where we’ve dismissed our needs.

Examining our own emotional pain helps us prevent needless suffering — and that helps us heal. Keep reading about how to squeeze some good from emotional pain, and how to alleviate emotional suffering.

What is the purpose of emotional pain? 

You grab the hot pan off the stove, but not by the handle. You drop it and scream “Ow!” After that, you don’t dare grab the pan that way again. You try the handle, or you use a protective mitt. You make the mistake, feel the pain, and learn to avoid that situation in the future. Emotional pain works the same way.

Emotional pain is something we all endure at one point or another. No matter its cause, it can feel debilitating and just as bad as physical pain. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between physical pain and emotional, but maybe that’s not so strange. Physical pain alerts us to a need, and it seems emotional pain serves the same important purpose.

Emotional pain, just like physical pain, is our body’s way of telling us to pay attention — something is wrong. When a relationship causes you emotional pain, you might consider leaving the relationship; when you’re suffering from loneliness, you’ve endured the emotional pain of isolation for too long — and that might spur you to seek out a non-judgmental group of people

What if I can’t tell why I’m hurting emotionally?

When you feel emotional pain, your body is trying to tell you that something is not right. Something is lacking in regards to your emotional health, or one of the factors that impacts it. With physical pain, we often know what the cause is (or at least it can be easier to diagnose). However, with emotional pain, your body can’t clearly communicate what the problem is, so it fires up the same pain circuits it usually uses to get your attention. Then you have to investigate, yourself. 

How are different kinds of emotional pain expressed in the body?

Different emotions can lead to different physical feelings. Think of how relationship-related emotional pain causes what we describe, literally, as heartache.

Often, sadness comes hand-in-hand with lethargy and a dull weight pressing down on your chest — that good ol’ heartache. 

Anger releases adrenaline, which prepares you to fight, but which can also increase your blood pressure, cause tingling in the arms and legs, and make you riled up and jittery. 

Anxiety and stress will activate the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis and cause all kinds of wide-ranging feelings, from jumpiness, uneasiness and an inability to relax, to nausea, tingling, and other neurological symptoms. 

Shame and guilt can bring feelings of butterflies and a heavy weight in your chest or stomach, along with the need to just curl up in a ball. 

And emotional pain in general can cause a variety of physical symptoms ranging from diarrhea, dizziness, muscle pain, nausea, stomach ache, and/or pain all over the body.

Why are physical and emotional pain so similar? Shared neural pathways.

Our experiences of physical and emotional pain are actually very similar, in terms of the neural pathways that fire. Vivek Murthy, the 19th surgeon general of the United States, claims in his book Togetherness: The Healing Power of Human Connection in an Otherwise Lonely World, that this is an evolutionary mechanism. 

We usually feel emotional pain because something is going wrong in our lives: our mental health is low, our social lives are amiss, our work lives aren’t going well, etc. All of these, in theory, impact our quality of life and our survival — just as much as access to fresh water, or protection against grizzly bears.

When we were first evolving as a species, having issues with our social circle could be life-threatening. Emotional issues signaled that we needed to change something, or risk being exiled from the group’s protection. 

Basically, emotions have never been random and useless. It’s good we’re able to feel them so strongly, even though we’re human and that sometimes means intense emotional pain.

What can we learn from emotional pain?

As mentioned earlier in the pan example, both physical and emotional pain are meant to teach you a lesson. You’ve experienced something that your body thinks threatens your survival, and it is trying to tell you “Don’t do that again! Remember this moment!”

Sometimes, the emotional pain feels like the searing shame of an awkward comment. This can be incredibly helpful in terms of learning social norms. You get chastised for doing something, and that makes you feel emotional pain, which you’ll think twice about next time. 

However, emotional pain can also be maladaptive when you have one negative experience in a normal situation, and your body wants you to avoid that situation like the plague. This applies to the lasting emotional pain of traumatic events, as well as to the simple overgeneralization of emotional pain’s lessons. For example, having one breakup and then avoiding relationships and dating altogether. 

Additionally, as discussed earlier, emotional pain left unaddressed almost always magnifies suffering — whether you consciously stuff it down, opt for coping over healing, or just can’t change your circumstances. Emotional pain keeps you safe by asking you to change something, but the effort required to do so can make it feel impossible to help ourselves heal

Tips for reducing emotional pain

1. Validate the pain

It’s hard to address a problem you haven’t closely looked at. When we feel emotional pain, we may struggle to accept our right to be upset — and sometimes it feels easier to dismiss what’s up. On the contrary, we do much better once we’ve given ourselves permission to hurt. This permission allows us to fully engage with the situation and reorient toward healing.

By repressing or dismissing your struggle, you not only make the emotional pain worse (and more likely to pop again), but also invite physical health consequences. Sit with your feelings, acknowledge them, and try to introspect about why they are here. What message is your emotional pain trying to relay to you? What are you supposed to learn from this pain?

2. Keep pain relieving ideas on hand

Have a list of things that make you happy, without fail, in a place that is easily accessible to you. These can range from going on a run to watching your favorite movie to doing laundry – anything that tends to distract you and relax you.

By keeping this list easily accessible, you have an automatic solution to launch into when you start to feel overwhelmed by your emotional pain. By engaging in multiple activities and going through this routine, you can shut off your stress response and recenter.

3. Write out your feelings

Writing down your feelings and thoughts might sound cheesy and difficult, since often when we feel emotional pain our thoughts are jumbled and confused. Writing those confusing thoughts down – whatever comes to mind – in a stream of consciousness can help sort through some of the mess. After letting out the disorganized thoughts to a piece of paper that can’t react or judge, you can proceed to work through your experience in a more organized way.

4. Therapy and social support

Sometimes, our emotional pain isn’t tied to one specific event or situation. Mental health issues aren’t always linked to single cause. Seeking out psychotherapy or a social support group of people who have experienced or similar emotional pain to you (like Supportiv) can help alleviate emotional pain. Sometimes we need to feel heard or like we aren’t alone in our experiences. This alone can make us feel more capable of healing!

5. Regularly check in with your body

Like we’ve mentioned, emotional pain is linked to physical responses in your body. By regularly taking deep breaths, you’ll slow your heart rate down and shut down some of the stress responses going off in your body that cause emotional pain.

It sounds silly, but sit down for a few minutes and try one of the many breathing patterns that can calm you — experiment until you find one that feels natural for you. Though the emotional pain won’t fully go away, the severity will decrease significantly.

Mindfulness practices condition you to be more in tune with the connection between your mind and your body. This can help you realize what situations are triggering your emotional pain, where in your body you feel emotional pain, and how your emotional pain differs from the pain you feel due to physical causes.

In conclusion…

By trying to connect with your body and learn what it is trying to tell you, not only will your emotional pain lessen, but the disruption to your day-to-day life will be less drastic. You will begin to feel that you are healing instead of suffering for no good reason.