The Squeaky Wheel

How to protect your psychological health, improve your relationships, and enhance your self-esteem.

5 Ways Emotional Pain Is Worse Than Physical Pain

Why emotional pain causes longer lasting damage to our lives

We tend to monitor our bodies and our physical health far more than we do our emotional health. For example, we get yearly physical check-ups but the idea of getting a ‘psychological check-up’ is completely foreign to us.

We know that if a small physical injury like a cut becomes more painful over time it is a sign of a more serious infection. But if failing to get a promotion at work is still emotionally painful after several weeks we are unaware that we might be getting depressed.

We tend to react to physical pain much more proactively than we do to emotional pain. Yet, short of catastrophic injuries or illnesses, emotional pain often impacts our lives far more than physical pain does. Here are five reasons emotional pain is worse than physical pain:

1. Memories Trigger Emotional Pain But Not Physical Pain: Recalling the time you broke your leg will not make your leg hurt but recalling the time you felt rejected by your high-school crush will cause you substantial emotional pain. Our ability to evoke emotional pain by merely remembering distressing events is profound and stands in stark contrast to our total inability (thankfully) to re-experience physical pain. This is one of the reasons:

2. We Use Physical Pain as Distraction from Emotional Pain Not Vice Versa: Some teens and adults practice ‘cutting’ (slicing their flesh superficially with a blade) because the physical pain it evokes distracts them from their emotional pain, thus offering them relief. But the same does not work in reverse, which is why we rarely see a woman choosing to manage the pain of natural childbirth by rereading the rejection letter from her college of choice. Unfortunately, although we might prefer physical to emotional pain, others see our pain differently, as evidenced by the fact that:

3. Physical Pain Garners Far More Empathy from Others Than Emotional Pain: When we see a stranger get hit by a car we wince, gasp, or even scream and run to see if they’re okay. But when we see a stranger get bullied or taunted we are unlikely to do any of those things. Studies found we consistently underestimate others’ emotional pain but not their physical pain. Further, these empathy gaps for emotional pain are reduced only if we’ve experienced a similar emotional pain very recently ourselves. Another aspect of emotional pain others often miss is:

4. Emotional Pain Echoes in Ways Physical Pain Does Not: If you got a call about your parent dying while you were having a romantic lobster meal with your partner on Valentine’s Day, it will probably be a few years before you can enjoy lobster or Valentine’s Day without becoming extremely sad. But if you broke your foot playing softball in an amateur league you will likely be back on the field as soon as you’re fully healed. Physical pain usually leaves few echoes (unless the circumstance of the injury was emotionally traumatic) while emotional pain leaves numerous reminders, associations and triggers that reactivate our pain when we encounter them. This is one of the reasons:

5. Emotional Pain but Not Physical Pain Can Damage Our Self-Esteem and Long-Term Mental Health: Physical pain has to be quite extreme to affect our personalities and damage our mental health (again, unless the circumstances are emotionally traumatic as well) but even single episodes of emotional pain can damage our emotional health. For example, failing an exam in college can create anxiety and a fear of failure, a single painful rejection can lead to years of avoidance and loneliness, bullying in middle school can make us shy and introverted as adults, and a critical boss can damage our self-esteem for years to come.

All these are reasons we should give our emotional health just as much (if not more) attention and care as we do our physical health. Alas, we rarely do. While we take action at the first sight of a sniffle or muscle sprain we do little to ‘treat’ common emotional injuries such as rejection, failure, guilt, brooding, or loneliness when we sustain them. While we apply antibacterial ointment to a cut or scrape right away we do little to boost or protect our self-esteem when it is low.

True, we might not know what actions we can take in such situations but the good news is, this kind of information is readily available. All we have to do is seek it out (for example, by using the search function on this website).

You might also want to check out, Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, failure, and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).

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Copyright 2014 Guy Winch

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Guy Winch, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and author of The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships and Enhance Self-Esteem. more...

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