The Science Behind Emotions and Pain
Patients frequently wonder: “Why do I have this pain?” or “Why can’t I heal?” Often, this has to do with the complex interplay of emotions and stress in the body.
The Physiological Response to Trauma
The body can deal with physical trauma better than non-physical trauma. As a species, our bodies are highly evolved to handle illness and injury. However, when we suppress or deny emotional pain, stress, and other non-physiological trauma it doesn’t go away. Just think back to childhood. What sticks out more in your mind? A time you injured your body or something like being bullied, embarrassed or deeply hurt emotionally?
This exercise helps us start to understand emotions’ ongoing impact. From a scientific perspective, when we relive negative emotions, it triggers the same chemical response as when we experience the actual trauma. Our body has a physiological response, with increased cortisol, blood sugar, blood pressure, etc. And, this response in the body, when repeated, takes away the body’s resilience. With a physical trauma, the body uses these mechanisms to handle the immediate problem and heal.
Unfortunately, many of us are living with a steady barrage of stress. Our bodies constantly repeat these adaptive reactions to handle what it perceives as trauma. We don’t rest or disconnect. The way we’re living is so drastically different than our ancestors, so our body’s natural responses lead to a new slew of ailments and pains.
We sometimes talk about the mind-body connection. But, it’s much more than a “connection”. The mind and body are one. It’s only an intellectual notion to separate them. Our nervous system is at work in all areas of the body. The brain and body survive by being completely integrated. Though this concept has long existed in Osteopathy, TCM and other disciplines, modern science now has the tools to see evidence of how it works.
For example, the founder of Osteopathy talked about the importance of fascia 150 years ago. Fascia is the sheet of connective tissue that stabilizes, encloses, and attaches muscles and organs. Now, we have the technology to understand just how important this substance is. Fascia is connective tissue made up of tightly woven collagen, making it extremely flexible and resistant to force. We understand that the fascia actually gives our bodies strength and absorbs most of the force, where we might have attributed that to bones and ligaments previously. Trigger point therapy works on releasing irritated/blocked spots in the fascia, which people sometimes erroneously think of as “muscle knots”.
How does that relate to pain and emotions? The fascia’s collagen conducts electric signals. It’s the key component connecting the body’s lymphatic and nervous systems. We’re made up of energy. We hold emotional energy in the fascia. This is why sometimes when we’re doing manual therapy and unblocking the fascia, a patient will feel themselves becoming emotional or crying. The patient is not feeling physical pain, they are feeling a release of trapped emotion.
A Better Solution for Dealing with Pain and Healing
Following on this evidence, pain treatment should be holistic. Simple “putting out fires” won’t create long-term healing when non-physical trauma and ongoing stress are at play. This means pain treatment has to be personalized, addressing acute pain/injury but also understanding the whole person. If a pain is not going away or healing as expected, there are reasons the body can’t resolve it.
The holistic approach must also extend beyond the clinic. The body and soul need rest and balance. Health is like a bank account. We can continue to withdraw from it, even taking out loans. But, at some point the account is beyond depleted and we can no longer ignore our debts. Likewise, our bodies become similarly depleted and can’t give us anymore without being replenished.
Matthew Stevens has over 20 years of experience in osteopathy, practicing in the UK, New Zealand, and Japan. He is specialized in integrative manual therapy, combining osteopathic treatments with medical massages as well as with some Traditional Chinese Medicine techniques such as Tuina massage and acupressure. to schedule an appointment with him. Body & Soul’s comprehensive pain management and rehabilitation center offers multidisciplinary therapies to fully address your pain. You can find the personalized combination from western medicine, manual therapies, TCM, psychology and energy therapies to help you heal.