Can Emotional Pain Be Treated Like Physical Pain?

mental pain

It hardly needs stating that emotional pain can feel unbearable; after all, it drives some to suicide. As well as knowing this from a theoretical perspective, I know from personal experience; I spent five days in a coma in intensive care following a suicide attempt, as I have written about previously in other articles that I have published on this site.

[NB. If you are feeling suicidal, you are strongly advised to contact an appropriately qualified professional].

But what is actually going on in the brain, in physiological terms, to cause such excruciating suffering?

Findings Of Recent Study:

A recent study was conducted on volunteers who were shown a photograph of a partner who had recently rejected them. Whilst looking at the photographs, these volunteers (a little cruelly, it could feasibly be argued!) were told to concentrate upon how badly the rejection made them feel.

Brain scans revealed that whilst the volunteers were focusing on the pain of rejection whilst looking at the photographs, the brain regions that were activated were very similar to those known to be activated by physical pain, in particular:



This suggests that both physical and psychological pain have similar neurological underpinnings.


Above : Image thought to show regions in brain activated in response to painful stimuli.

Implications Of The Above Study For The Treatment Of Psychological Pain:

Traditionally, physical pain and psychological pain have been treated in separate ways :

Traditional Treatment Of Physical Pain :

By medications such as paracetomal, aspirin, ibuprofen, Tylenol

Traditional Treatment Of Psychological Pain :

By medications such as antidepressants and sedatives

However, another study (carried out at the University of British Columbia) involved an experiment in which one group of volunteers had symptoms of anxiety treated using a placebo whilst the other group had symptoms of anxiety treated by the administration of 1000 mg Tylenol.

Results showed that those administered Tylenol had significantly reduced anxiety symptoms when compared to those in the placebo treatment group.


It seems reasonable to conclude, on the basis of the above two studies described above, that not only do physical and psychological pain share common neurological foundations, but that, because of this, some psychological pain (such as that connected with anxiety) may respond to treatments (such as Tylenol, see above) originally intended to combat physical pain.

However, research into this area of study is at an early stage so definitive conclusions must be drawn with caution.


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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).



About David Hosier MSc

Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of Survivor of severe childhood trauma.

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