Pain has 2 components: 

  • a physical component
  • a psychological/emotional component
Whilst the brain does not process physical and psychological pain in precisely the same manner, experiments involving neural pathways strongly suggest that the experience of both types of pain have a lot in common. Indeed, similar brain regions are involved with the processing of both physical pain and the pain of social rejection.
And the fact that both types of pain are experienced in similar ways is reflected in the language we use to talk about our emotional pain e.g. we talk of ‘hurt’ feelings ir of having a ‘broken’ heart’ or of being ‘crushed’ as a result of being rejected by a former partner.
Whilst physical pain evolved to alert us to physical injury and danger, psychological/emotional pain evolved to alert us to emotional and psychological injury or danger, such as social rejection. In both cases, the pain we feel encourages us to avoid its cause (whether physical or psychological/emotional) in the future. For example, if we put our hand in a fire and suffer pain as a result, we are less likely to do it again.
Similarly, if we behave in such a way that we become a social pariah, the pain of such ostracism makes it less likely we will repeat such behavior in the future. DeWall explains the similarity between how the brain processes the two types of pain in the same evolutionary context: once the brain had evolved to process physical pain, it makes evolutionary sense that the processing of emotional/psychological/social pain would, as it were, ‘piggyback’ on this same system rather than rely on an entirely new brain system that evolved from scratch (you may also wish to read my post about the evolutionary explanation as to why rejection is so painful). From this point of view, DeWall also inferred that therapies that reduce physical pain should also ameliorate psychological/emotional/social pain (and, logically enough, vice versa).
A qualitative study based on the interviewing of one hundred and sixty individuals found that the six top categories of what causes people psychological/emotional/mental pain were as follows:
  1. EXPLICIT REJECTION (when we are told DIRECTLY we are not wanted)
  2. IMPLICIT REJECTION (when we infer we are not wanted from the behavior of another person e.g. always being ignored by them).
Of course, when a parent rejects/criticizes/betrays/mocks us the mental pain it causes us is especially intense and if such emotional abuse is severe and protracted can result in us developing conditions such as borderline personality disorder (BPD) and complex PTSD. You can read about being rejected, constantly criticized, betrayed, and mocked by parents by reading the articles below:



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