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The Connection between Emotion and Pain

Last month I was plagued for days with a nagging back ache. I could feel it in my lower right side of the lumbar region. It was not debilitating, yet I feared thatit could, at any time, spasm and impair my ability to move. While driving to Virginia my back discomfort captured my attention. I realized that the ache was similar to the back pain I experienced two summers ago during a very stressful time with visiting relatives. I’m not sure whether it was because of my acknowledgment of the connection of the two, or the self-talk I did while driving to release any leftover negative feelings I was holding involving my relatives, but when I got out of the car the discomfort vanished and no aches or pains have returned.

I was astonished. The pain was real, and the pain really disappeared. I didn’t roll, I didn’t get a massage, reflexology, acupuncture or visit a chiropractor. Yet the pain was gone.

I was excited. I began researching the topic and found a plethora of scientific research and anecdotal material that acknowledges the connection between emotion and pain.

What I discovered is that all pain, whether caused by a broken arm or carpel tunnel syndrome, is processed in the brain, next to parts of the brain that regulate emotions. The brain has evolved a certain amount of overlap between its emotion and pain centers. This design allows the brain to efficiently process a wide range of sensations, such as a twisted ankle, a cut finger, anger or sadness.

When we experience emotional stress or trauma we either release it or suppress it. One way we hide unreleased emotional energy is by tightening muscles, (hip, back, neck, head, knee, etc.), where it is stored. Pain forces you to stop what you are doing and shift your attention. It forces you to recognize when your body has been damaged, and its ability to care for itself is overwhelmed.

Dr. Joe Tarantolo, a Hill psychiatrist and herbalist, had a similar experience to mine in a consciousness-raising workshop several years ago. “The instructor turned the lights down and told us to, ‘Work on something.’ I didn’t know what he was talking about. I decided to ‘work’ on my back problems. Within a few minutes I broke out weeping. I realized that’s where I held my sadness. Since that day, I no longer have back problems.”

Dr. Tarantolo told me at least 20 percent of patients who show up with pain in a neurology clinic have no organic problem. “So many diseases we deal with are functional which means there is no visible, organic reason for the pain. “It can be difficult to treat,” he said. “Headaches and back pain especially are often muscular in nature. Often tests find nothing wrong with one’s brain or spine, yet the patient is in terrible pain.”

Dr Natalie Boulware

Dr. Natalie Boulware a naturopathic physician on the Hill, said that pain and the origin of that pain is our body’s way of communication. “Someone who comes to me with headaches and has no organic cause may not find a solution in traditional medicine. I may ask, “What was going on prior to headaches?”

What We Can Do
Both Dr. Tarantolo and Dr. Boulware emphasize acceptance as the first, important step to take to eliminating functional pain. “Every person is different,’ explained Dr. Tarantolo. “ Accept that the symptoms are real and it will be hard to fix. Put some distance between your symptom and normal functioning. Try to do as much as you normally do and not become preoccupied with the symptoms.” Dr. Tarantolo also suggests practicing meditation and/or exercising as ways to help alleviate the pain.

“Do something out of the ordinary in nature,” he said. “For example, try walking barefoot or taking a walk in the woods. Experiment with listening to music that you don’t usually listen to. Begin to separate your painful life with something else.” Maybe most important Dr. Tarantolo said find a way to have compassion for yourself, not pity. “Reshuffle fixed beliefs about yourself.”

Dr. Boulware had a patient who had a pain in her right shoulder. She received a massage and the pain disappeared, only to reappear in her left shoulder two weeks later. “I started a conversation with her about stress management. When she feels stressed, I asked her to take a moment to recognize and acknowledge it in moment that it’s happening. I suggested she try belly breathing so the stress doesn’t get stored in body and cause pain. I encourage small steps towards a lifestyle change.”

Both doctors agree that self-talk can be guided as in psychotherapy or self-directed. “If your pain were talking what would it say is a question Dr. Boulware suggested you can ask yourself. Others: What would you need to feel better? What happened before the pain? “Pain has a usefulness,” she said. “Your body is always talking to you.”

Another exercise that Dr. Boulware has used herself is to sit down with blank paper and pen and talk to the pain. “Why are you here? What things do I need to acknowledge or be more aware of for self-care in order for this pain to go away?”

I believe we are not meant to live in pain. We have a myriad of choices for dealing with that pain. Why not start with ourselves. Once we get centered and aware it becomes easier to decide from the many options which will work best for our getting well.

Our bodies can tell when something is out of balance in our lives, even if this knowledge is unclear in our conscious minds. A chapter from All is Well by Louise Hay explains, “If we are to fully heal we must bring our attention to the message our bodies relay through intuition. But we also need logic and facts to fully understand which imbalances in our lifestyle are affecting our health. Just like needing both tires inflated on a bicycle, you need to balance emotions and intuition with logic and fact…in order to create health.”

For more information on the connection between emotion and pain, please refer to the following books and a YouTube video:

Energy Medicine: Balancing Your Body’s Energies for Optimal Health, Joy and Vitality by Donna Eden; Taming the Tiger by Peter Levine; Healing Back Pain by John Sarno; Molecules of Emotion by Candace Pert, and Heal Your Body with Medicine, Affirmations and Intuition by Louise Hay and Mona Lisa Schulz, M.D., Ph.D.

The video is: Dr. Carmen McGuinness “The Connection between Pain and Emotion” on YouTube.

To contact Dr. Joe Tarantolo: drjtarantolo@earthlink.net. To contact Dr. Natalie Boulware: drnatalieboulware@gmail.com.


Pattie Cinelli is a health/fitness professional who offers information about subjects on the leading ledge of health and fitness thought. She has been writing her column for more than 25 years and welcomes column suggestions and fitness questions. Pattie also provides lectures, private sessions and group classes. You can contact Pattie at: fitmiss44@aol.com.

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