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The Thing No One Told You About Your Emotional Pain

Understanding your brain's response to emotional pain is key to beating it.

Key points

  • Neuroscience research suggests that emotional pain may be more relevant to us than physical pain.
  • The parts of the brain that process physical pain are very similar to the parts that process emotional pain.
  • Volitionally retriggering emotional pain allows the brain to have the space to recode the event.
Turn your pain to power
Source: Piacqua/Pexels

The greatest journey of your life is always the road that takes you from the depths of your pain and delivers you to the triumph of your power.

Power simply means "to be able."

Anything you want: growth, peace, a new job, a better romance, a transformed relationship with your children—all require your effect on your own life.

As a neuropsychologist specializing in trauma, I have watched people rise from unspeakable pain. After more than 20 years of trauma work, the thing that stuns me still is the spectacular grace and courage of people who say: I rise, not because I have beat the fear, the pain, and the grief. I rise with the fear. With the pain. With the grief.

I rise because I choose to rise.

I rise because I rise.

What does this mean for you?

It means that the relief you are seeking is often much closer than it might appear. It simply requires you to understand the chemistry of converting your pain to your power.

Often, there is—like the constant ticking of a clock—a reliable rhythm to those who stay stuck and those who make it home.

I'll tell you two things that I hope will clarify what your brain does with your pain and why it can, at first, be so hard to let it go.

First, there is very often a "nowness" to your emotional pain. A sense that, no matter how long ago the emotional injury actually occurred, it just occurred.

A random comment, a spontaneous situation, a certain tone of voice, and suddenly—all over again—there it is: The dropping of your stomach. The tightening of your throat. The breaking of your heart.

When an old wound is reactivated in you, you're triggered anew.

From this reactive posture, we tarnish the potential of new moments with the pain of old scripts.

From this reactive posture, we argue with ghosts.

Why Does This Happen?

The part of your brain that is the holder of your emotional reactivity: your anxiety, fear, trauma and stress is unable to keep linear time.

It literally does not understand time.

These subcortical regions in your brain that store your emotional pain are not the parts that say "I must be at the grocery store by 3pm."

This is why, when a person triggers an old wound, the trigger can seem as fresh as this morning's dew.

The second thing that's important to understand about the brain and emotional pain is that emotional pain is wildly salient to the brain. Emotional pain is so important that your brain locks in these memories, ironically enough, to protect you.

The parts of the brain that process physical pain are very similar to the parts that process emotional pain. This is why, for example, when your heart gets broken, you literally feel physical pain.

But here's where it gets even more interesting. Neuroscience research seems to suggest that, oddly enough, emotional pain may be more relevant to us than physical pain.

Consider this: Think about a time when you really physically injured yourself.

For example, several months ago, I knocked myself silly when I slammed a trunk on my head. Y'all, I left my body and saw Jupiter, ok? I remember this event very clearly and yet I cannot feel it.

Ok now, consider this:

Growing up I was the size of a small acorn, always the smallest kid by an order of magnitude. One time in 6th grade history class, Mrs. Kieffer made us all stand up when it was our turn to answer the question.

When it was my turn, Mrs. Kieffer said, "Stand up, Julia."

And I had to say in front of the whole class....wait for it...."I am standing."

The class erupted—hooting, shrieking, the whole 9 yards—and I thought I was gonna die.

The difference between memories of physical vs emotional pain is you can STILL FEEL the latter.

I can still feel the embarrassment—the flushing of my face, the sweat in my palms. I can still feel my classmates' laughter hitting my face like slaps.

In other words, our emotional pain remains alive inside of our own bodies whereas the physical pain is simply a non-living memory.

To beat chronic patterns of emotional pain, the most effective thing to do is re-trigger the memory of the pain.*

It seems counterintuitive to intentionally move toward the painful emotional memory, but this is precisely what our most evidence-based treatments for anxiety indicate.

Volitionally retriggering the emotional pain allows your brain to have the space it needs to recode the meaning of the event.

To recode the difference between now and then.

To recode the difference between a live thing and a memory of the thing.

To recode the difference between a feeling and a threat.

To recode the difference between danger and discomfort.

When you really show your brain that discomfort is not danger, you will find you can release.

And it is here, untethered from the pain of your past, that you're fully able to live your life, not from a place of emotional reactivity, but a place of emotional power.

* Of course, you should seek mental health treatment when indicated. To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.