The link between your emotions, your body and pain

Written by Maxi Schonteich, IMI former osteopath and pain expert

Your emotions and bodily experiences are intimately linked.

Lauuri Nummenmaa and his team of molecular neuroscientists were able to map emotions in the body. Their results were astonishing. No matter the sex or nationality, the physical manifestations of emotions are largely similar across the world.

And the surprising reason why? Survival.

Nummenmaa suggested that our emotions are rooted in our survival. For example, when we’re fearful, we prepare to run away by adjusting both our brain, muscle tension and bodily state.

Although humans are very sophisticated, our bodies are ultimately built for and governed by our need to survive. Though we may be unaware of it, we’re constantly screening our internal and external environment for threats and danger.

Our emotions are an essential part of our survival, giving us safety and danger cues. These reactions have existed longer than we’ve had words that describe them.

The mind-body connection is real, and our emotions influence our physiology constantly, whether we realise it or not.

The link between your emotions and pain

Upcoming research by Nummenmaa’s team reveals that certain emotions are linked to chronic and acute pain. What’s more, other research has found that greater pain is linked to limited emotional awareness, expression and processing.

Not only does pain affect our emotional landscape, it shifts our mood towards more negativity and operates as an inbuilt alarm system in the brain, alerting us to potential danger.

Furthermore, neuroscience shows us that emotional pain and physical pain activate the same brain pathways.

Author and Psychotherapist Sean Grover explains that muscular tension in the body is tied to emotional states.

He even attributes pain in certain body regions to specific emotional states:

  • The back is associated with stored anger
  • Digestive problems are more common when one experiences fear and anxiety
  • Neck and shoulder tension is associated with excessive burdens and responsibilities

Chronically held emotional states switch on our survival mechanisms in the brain, leading to a stress response associated with muscle tension and constant guarding. Chronic muscle tension can cause pain and tension over time.

Identifying our emotions

So we know our emotions and bodies are linked, and that lack of emotional awareness can lead to greater pain, but how do we identify and cope with our emotions?

Sometimes it’s easy to identify our feelings with words-

In Nummenmaa’s study, participants identified six basic emotions: anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness and surprise, and seven non-basic emotions: anxiety, love, depression, contempt, pride, shame and envy.

But if you sometimes struggle to prescribe a specific word to your emotional experience (an experience common for those who are neurodivergent) there is another model you can use to identify feelings: the arousal-valence model.

The arousal valence model seeks to identify feelings by two measures.

1-      How intense or arousing the emotion is. This may be signified by a high heart rate. Specific emotions associated with this are anger or excitement.

2-      The valence of the emotion (how pleasant or unpleasant the feeling is). Low valence emotions are signified by your mood – are you feeling positive, or negative right now? Examples of low valence emotions are depression or boredom, while high valence emotions are feeling relaxed or curious.

Using this model can help give a sense of what you’re feeling without the need for words.

So, how do we regulate our emotions and pain response?

The US pain foundation has identified six emotions that exacerbate chronic pain. These are: fear, anxiety, anger, guilt, grief and helplessness.

A simple way to begin working with these emotions is by simply noticing and acknowledging them. 

In ancient times, our emotions functioned to protect us and aid survival: when we encountered a wild animal, we would have felt stress, triggering our fight or flight response: causing us to flee, try to fight, or in other cases, freeze. 

In our modern world, our stress response may be triggered, even when there is no wild animal. These days, the wild animal is someone shouting at us, seeing our ex, or having to meet a deadline, with not enough time to complete the task. 

Though these events are not as dangerous as encountering a wild animal, our bodies react the same. Our emotions send us signals about what is going on: I am safe, I am in danger, I am scared, I am comfortable. Even though we may logically know, ‘it’s okay, I am safe,’ our emotional and physical experience may not be the same as our mental understanding of the situation. 

So, when you feel the emotion rising, take a moment to acknowledge them. Say thank you to your anger or fear for trying to protect you, and breathe with the emotion for a moment instead of trying to suppress or ignore it.

Emotions like fear, anxiety, anger, guilt, grief and helplessness are complex, and their link to both the body and mind may mean that counselling, psychotherapy and somatic therapy like osteopathy are beneficial for deeper healing.

Osteopathy may be particularly useful for those who are experiencing physical pain, as an osteopath can assess if there are any structural causes for your pain.

Would you like to see one of our Osteopaths?

Call +852 2523 7121 or request an appointment below, and our team will contact you as soon as possible to confirm your session.

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