Think back to the last time your back ached, or you felt tension in your shoulders. What kind of emotional state were you in at the time? If you can’t remember or didn’t even notice, don’t worry. According to certain schools of thought, the location of your physical pain may actually be a clue as to the emotions you’re experiencing. Connecting those dots, then, could reveal exactly where you need to make changes in your life to improve your own wellbeing, both physically and emotionally.
In medical circles, the concept of pain is essentially as a symptom of something else. Defining it beyond that is challenging, however, because it’s inherently subjective. Nevertheless, the most commonly used definition is the one provided by the International Association for the Study of Pain, which reads, “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage.”
Indeed, pain isn’t just a physical experience, but an emotional one too. And those two areas are connected in more ways than you might think. After all, common turns of phrase such as “pain in the neck” or “sick to my stomach” must have come from somewhere. Both of those describe emotional reactions using physical comparisons.
Well, researchers believe it’s all to do with a concept called psychogenic pain. In basic terms, that means physical symptoms of pain with a root emotional, mental or behavioral cause. Indeed, the International Association for the Study of Pain’s definition of the term pain extends to experiences “described in terms of such damage,” effectively addressing pain caused by psychological factors.
Psychogenic pain is expressed through what’s known as psychosomatic symptoms – literally, the pain you feel in certain areas of your body. The origins of this school of thought can be traced back to 1924, and the Austrian physicist Wilhelm Stekel. A close follower of Sigmund Freud, Stekel made major contributions to psychoanalytic theory, including introducing the term somatization.
As you might have guessed, somatization is the overarching term for the expression of psychosomatic symptoms and psychogenic pain. “Somatization disorder” has fallen out of favor as a clinical diagnosis nowadays. However, the phenomenon can still be used to explain possible reasons behind physical pain when more obvious medical causes have been ruled out.
Indeed, psychogenic pain isn’t restricted to just people suffering from the extremes of somatization. It can occur in practically anyone, induced by factors including a broken heart, social rejection or grief. A 2005 study even found that these somatic symptoms can be exacerbated in people who’ve experienced trauma or abuse in their lives.
It’s thought, then, that these torrid emotional experiences manifest themselves in certain areas around your body. And some psychologists believe that the specific location of the physical pain you’re feeling can explain your emotional state, even if you’re not fully aware of it yourself. Essentially, a literal “pain in the neck” could well be something emotional too.
For instance, lower-back pain is something many people over a certain age will likely be familiar with. But while there might indeed be a simple, easily identifiable physical cause behind it, such as incorrect posture, it could also be a sign of unexpressed anger. According to psychotherapist Sean Grover, bottling up your frustrations could lead to discomfort in your back.
“For relief, learn to constructively articulate frustration and address conflicts with others in the moment,” Grover wrote for Psychology Today in July 2018. Essentially, aiming to let out all that anger, rather than repressing it, should stop it from expressing itself in the psychosomatic symptom of lower-back pain.
However, pent-up anger isn’t the only possible source of lower-back pain. Indeed, Dr. Mark W. Tong told LittleThings that it could also be caused by money worries. When that lower-back pain hits, then, it’s probably worth considering whether you’ve been experiencing any financial stress lately, then working to remedy it.
Even then, it’s not just lower-back pain that could point to a specific emotional state. In fact, pain in your upper back could suggest you’re feeling a “lack of emotional support,” according to Ronda Degaust, a life coach and self-help author. If that sounds like news to you, then it’s worth considering just how much emotional support you currently have in your life.
For instance, if you’ve been single for a while, you might have grown accustomed to living without the kind of love only a partner can bring into your life. You might not realize, then, what you’re missing – but if that emotion manifests itself as upper-back pain, it could be a telling sign, says Degaust.
At some point, you’ve probably felt “sick to your stomach.” It’s a common internal reaction to external conflict, said Grover, as we naturally tense our stomach in response to fear. If you’re feeling pain in your intestines, then, it could be that you’re actually repressing fear over something happening in your life.
According to Grover, the best way to deal with the pain is to identify the source of your fear. Once you’ve acknowledged it, it will become much easier to handle. “The more you can express the fear in words, the less of a hold it will have on your body,” he wrote for Psychology Today.
Indeed, figuring out the potential psychological source of your problems could be the key to relieving them, said Grover. Your heart doesn’t literally break when you experience loss – whether of a relationship, or a loved one, or a pet, or whatever – but if you don’t express your grief properly, it can manifest in physical ways.
For instance, it could result in chest pains. That’s exactly what happened to one of Grover’s clients, who baffled doctors with her symptoms. After all, they had no discernable physical cause. Eventually, though, it transpired she’d been bottling up her emotions over her previous relationship. When she uncorked the bottle and cried her eyes out, the chest pain vanished.
If you find yourself getting constant headaches for seemingly no reason, you may want to take stock of your daily routine. According to Dr. Christina Peterson, headaches and migraines can be caused by stress and similar emotional triggers. We’ve all experienced burnout at one time or another, and it may have manifested in a splitting headache.
Taking a step back could be just what the doctor ordered, then. Indeed, Peterson recommended “relaxation training, meditation and counseling” to combat stress triggers. Meanwhile, Grover pointed out that headaches can arise in control freaks who begin to lose their sense of order. In that case, the remedy is simply learning to accept that not everything in life can be controlled.
It’s not just headaches that can spark from a stressful life, though. In fact, according to Dr. Laura Perry, “Trigger points in the calf muscles are also very likely to become activated by stress or emotional tension.” Yes, that pain in your calves could reveal, and therefore be explained by, the emotions you’re feeling.
More specifically, it’s the stress and emotional tension brought on by resentment and jealousy that could stoke your calf trouble. Just like learning to accept that you can’t control everything might cure your headaches, learning to let go of any long-held bitterness may offer some relief from pain in your calves.
In this work-centric society, it’s no secret that many of us are shouldering more than our fair share of responsibility. And according to professional kinesiologist Ros Kitson, that could result in actual shoulder pain, as “our shoulders are where we carry our burdens. We talk about ‘shouldering a problem’ and this is exactly what we’re doing when our shoulders tense up and cause us pain.”
Relieving yourself of this metaphorical weight on your shoulders, therefore, could also relieve you of the literal pain that you’re experiencing. Indeed, Grover advised that learning to delegate and being able to ask for support were critical skills to have in your locker, especially if your shoulders were hurting.
Sometimes, figuring out the psychological reasons behind symptoms of physical pain isn’t that difficult. Just take your elbows, for example: if they are feeling stiff, the cause could be similar. Quite simply, it might have something to do with a more general stiffness in the approach that you take to day-to-day life.
That line of thinking comes from Dr. Alan Fogel, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Utah, who wrote for Psychology Today in 2012 that “all emotions have a motor component.” In the case of your elbows, then, you could try loosening up, and accepting change and compromise as part of your life.
Typically, a “pain in the neck” is used to refer to someone else who’s annoying you. However, if you’re experiencing a literal pain in your own neck, the reason could actually be to do with the way you’re judging yourself. Indeed, according to kinesiology expert Lori D’Ascenzo, “Your neck is where you hold guilt and self-recrimination.”
It could be, then, that you simply need to stop being so hard on yourself. We often don’t even realize we’re judging ourselves harshly, so recognizing that is an important first step. Moreover, if you’re feeling guilty over the way you’ve treated someone else, then finding forgiveness from them could also help relieve your neck pain.
On the other hand, though, thinking too much of yourself could also lead to physical symptoms in other areas – namely, your knees, according to acupuncturist Lawrence Michail. “Briefly, knee problems may be said to indicate being stuck in the ego, too proud to bend,” he told Little Things.
If you are experiencing chronic, otherwise unexplainable knee pain, then, you might want to give yourself a reality check. After all, if Michail is correct, then climbing down from your ego and reining in the urge to boast about your achievements could go a long way to alleviating your symptoms.
It’s hard to feel joy when you’re in pain, but according to clinical psychologist Dr. Adaobi Anyeji, the two are inextricably linked. “When one is depressed, they often have negative self-talk that contributes to… bodily discomfort and exacerbates already present physical conditions,” she told Little Things.
Cutting down on negativity and bringing a little more joy into your life, then, could be the key to curing certain physical ailments that have no other valid cause, such as chronic foot pain. Of course, it’s not as easy as flipping a switch and becoming more optimistic. But taking time to enjoy the little things in life could be all you need to make a change.
What’s more, bringing that joy into your life directly by means of pleasure could cut out any lingering ankle pain. After all, as author Jill Douglas and self-help guru Kathy Hadley agree, “Ankles represent the ability to receive pleasure.” If they’re hurting, chances are, you’re not getting enough pleasure in life.
Fortunately, the answer to this particular bit of physical pain is, well, a pleasurable one. Indeed, you simply need to take a little more time to indulge yourself, whether that’s through the food you eat, the people you surround yourself with, or the activities you do. You never know – it just might clear up that ankle pain.
While we’re probably all familiar with headaches or back pain, there are certain parts of our bodies that we don’t regularly associate with discomfort. For instance, how often do your hands give you grief? Well, it does happen, and according to D’Ascenzo, there’s a possible psychological reason for it.
“Hands reach out to others,” she told Little Things. “Are you stifling your need to reach out and connect with others?” Indeed, while it sounds a little coincidental, isolating yourself from others could manifest in pain in your hands. It may be a good idea, then, to look at broadening your social circles.
However, not all physical symptoms are painful in the traditional sense, but they’re still deeply uncomfortable and unwelcome. For instance, you might find that you sometimes have difficulty breathing. Other times, you might have panic attacks that you can’t explain. According to Grover, the reason may be that you’re bottling up sadness.
If you don’t give yourself time to process sad events, instead burying your feelings deep down, then they could express themselves in other ways, such as a suffocating sensation. The solution is to allow yourself to feel them. “Freeing bottled-up sadness is like sucking in a dose of fresh oxygen,” Grover wrote. “It’s refreshing and liberating!”
While targeting the specific psychological causes of your physical symptoms may be useful, there may be broader underlying issues at play, according to psychologist Susanne Babbel. Writing for Psychology Today in 2010, Babbel said, “One might develop psychosomatic symptoms or stress-related symptoms because of unresolved emotional issues.”
The solution, wrote Babbel, is “a combination of psychotherapy and physical therapy.” Psychotherapy is more commonly known simply as therapy and involves talking through whatever issues you have with a psychologist or counselor. According to Babbel, this strategy is “the most logical pain management option for stress and chronic pain relief.”
While psychogenic pain isn’t a concept the entire scientific community subscribes to, it may be worth keeping it in mind the next time you feel pain. After all, those random headaches may not be so random after all but a sign of your current emotional state. And with that knowledge, you may then be able to do something about it.